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Allow children to grieve their pets

Tue., March 6, 2012, midnight

Parents’ reaction sets tone for losses later in life

Q: Our pet parakeet is dying. Our two daughters, ages 13 and 10, are very upset. One constantly cries. The other has withdrawn. How should I handle this pet grief?

A: Grieving a pet is excellent grief “practice” for bigger losses your children will face as they get older, such as their first broken hearts, the death of their grandparents and other loved ones.

Your reaction as a parent will set the template for these later losses. EndNotes asked for some guidelines from Robin Prince Monroe, a Greenville, S.C., woman who lost a daughter to leukemia in 1987 and later wrote seven books about grief. She’s also an animal lover.

“Don’t minimize (the grief) in any way because it’s a pet,” Monroe advised.

• Explain clearly that their pet will not be coming back.

“We don’t want to deal with their hearts being broken so sometimes people don’t tell them the truth,” Monroe said. “But children understand about death – sometimes better than adults.”

• Plan a goodbye ceremony with the girls.

“Every culture and every religion does something at death, because it helps. When the parakeet dies, they need to do something special to close it out,” Monroe said. “Maybe (release) a balloon with the parakeet’s name on it.”

At the goodbye ceremony, if you believe that the parakeet will be in heaven, waiting for human loved ones, say that.

If you don’t have that belief, you might explain that the bird’s body will break down and become part of life-giving soil.

• Don’t replace the parakeet right away.

If you replace the bird too soon, it sends the message that “it was not that special, because here’s another parakeet,” Monroe said.

Giving your girls time to work through their grief teaches them how to keep on going, despite their sadness. They will draw on this memory when they face the bigger losses to come.

Q: I want to be cremated. My dad says that Catholics cannot be cremated because the Catholic Church forbids it. Is his opinion accurate?

A: The Roman Catholic Church still prefers burial, but no longer forbids cremation.

A brief history lesson offers perspective. In the early days of the church, cremation was associated with pagan practices; therefore, the church forbade the practice.

“Over the years the old creeds which Catholics have always professed said: ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body,’ ” explained Daniel Kendall, a Jesuit priest, author and University of San Francisco theologian.

In the Bible, however, “body” means person, not a corpse. The church after Vatican II – in the mid-1960s – returned to the original meaning of the creeds, and acknowledged that the “resurrection of the body” means belief in the person, an afterlife.

The person is not annihilated, and our “bodies” will be “transformed” after death. “Corpse” does not enter into the discussion, Kendall said.

The Roman Catholic Church lifted its ban on cremation in 1963. However, cremation may require some liturgical adjustments.

The funeral rite of the Catholic Church is threefold: vigil, funeral Mass and rite of committal (a short prayer service at the cemetery). With immediate cremation, the body is not present at the Mass and the committal of the remains may actually precede the funeral service, which is liturgically out of order, or not be buried at all.

And, without a body present, mourners are denied a sense of the deceased one’s presence.

A practical solution is to have the body present at the funeral Mass, and then cremated with a committal of the remains scheduled for a few days later.

People choose cremation for a variety of reasons: ecological, financial, geographical or emotional. If you want your body cremated, you may wish to plan your funeral Mass with a priest now, easing your family’s concerns.

Catherine Johnston, a health care professional from Olympia, and Rebecca Nappi, Spokesman-Review features writer, welcome your questions about what to do in times of illness, dying, death and grief. Contact them through their EndNotes blog at

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