Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My husband used to take our two dogs for walks and would let them off their leash to run in an abandoned field. Three weeks ago, he woke up early in the morning to take them out. Around 9:30, he came down to the basement, where I was working out, and said Lager, our Boston terrier, had run off.

I called a good friend to come help me look for Lager, and we searched for him until dark. We posted pictures of him on Facebook, Ring, and dog sites but heard nothing back. My son, who is 14, also went to look for him. Meanwhile, my husband went out downtown with a friend, and I was disappointed that he would leave while our dog was still missing.

The next morning, there were still no responses to our online posts about Lager, so I was sad and worried. Then my friend who had helped me look for him called to ask what color his collar was; I texted my husband, and he said it was blue. My friend put me on with dispatch, and they said Lager was deceased—he had been hit by a car while trying to come home. I was devastated and broke down, but I needed to get it together so I could tell my son. As soon as I told him, he started to cry and said he would never speak to Dad again, because he killed our dog.

It has been three weeks, and my son has still not talked to his dad. There has been no apology from my husband either. I have explained to our son that his father did not kill our dog, that it was a mistake and he never intended for this to happen. But that doesn’t help. I am lost and don’t know what to do.

Angela
Salt Lake City


Dear Angela,

The death of a beloved pet is a tragic loss for adults and kids alike, and there are several ways that you can help your son as he grieves. In fact, not talking to his dad is a way of communicating his unspoken grief, and the more he is supported in his grief and given permission to feel a range of emotions (including anger), the easier it will be to repair his relationship with his father.

When offering your support, the first thing to consider is just how devastating the death of a pet can be. This may seem obvious, but sometimes the pain from this kind of loss is minimized. Yes, it’s very sad, the thinking goes, but it was a dog, not a human. Yet one’s connection with a pet is often profound: A pet can be akin to a child, a best friend, or even (especially for kids) a sibling. On top of that, when a pet dies, it might be a kid’s first experience with death. And if this is indeed your son’s first experience with death, bear in mind that the way a person grieves tends to be related both to the way the death happened and the way the loss is handled.

Generally speaking, people have an easier time processing a death that was somewhat expected (a terminal illness, old age) than one that takes them by surprise (a sudden heart attack, a car accident). In the former circumstance, we can begin to emotionally prepare for the impending loss and also say our goodbyes. In the latter, layered on top of the loss is shock, the sense of one’s world being turned upside down. And in your son’s situation, there’s also a sense of betrayal.

The betrayal goes beyond your son’s belief that his father could have been more careful with the dogs—perhaps by keeping them on a leash or taking them to an enclosed area. The betrayal is also that once the tragedy happened and your son was drowning in pain, nobody pulled up with the lifeboat. By that I mean that when your son tries to talk about his feelings, he’s left alone in his grief. Dad didn’t mean it. Don’t be angry. And being alone in one’s grief greatly compounds it.

It’s true, of course, that your husband never intended to put Lager in danger, but it’s also true that he hasn’t taken any responsibility for his part in Lager’s escape, nor has he shown any remorse or compassion. Most people don’t apologize because either they aren’t sorry, or they’re very sorry but are silenced by their own shame, as I imagine is the case with your husband. I’m guessing that his shame explains why he went downtown with his friend while Lager was still missing, and why he hasn’t been able to face your son in the grief that he had a role in creating.

When a child’s feelings make a parent uncomfortable, sometimes that parent will try to talk the child out of those feelings. For instance, the child says, “I’m angry,” and the parent says, “Really? Over such a tiny thing? You’re so sensitive!” Or the kid says, “I’m sad,” and the parent says, “Don’t be sad. Hey, look, a balloon!” Or the child says, “I’m scared,” and the parent says, “Oh, honey, there’s nothing to be worried about.” But you can’t make feelings go away by pretending they aren’t there. In fact, the more you try to quash them, the stronger they get. That’s why explaining to your son that he shouldn’t be angry with his father hasn’t helped.  

What will help is for you and your husband to model healthy grieving for your son. That means that if you’re sad, instead of holding back your tears, as you did when you learned of Lager’s death, let your son see you cry—this will send the message that it’s okay to cry when he’s sad, too. It means that your husband embraces his son in all his anger and grief, and talks to him about how bad he feels about his role in Lager’s death, how sorry he is for the pain he has caused, and how much he misses Lager too. He might even talk to your son about how he’s working on forgiving himself while also holding himself responsible for his mistake, and that even though that is very hard, he hopes his son learns to do the same when he makes mistakes. He might also add that even though he’s trying to forgive himself, his son does not have to.

Then, once you’re able to grieve together, you might create a goodbye ritual for Lager. That could be a small memorial service at which you share happy memories of Lager and say what you wish you’d had the opportunity to say to him before he died. You might plant a tree in his memory. Or perhaps you’ll create a video or photo collage, or a book of your favorite Lager stories, or a box of items that belonged to Lager that would be comforting for your son to hold on to. And even then, remember that just because Lager died, he’s still very much alive in your son’s memory, and likely always will be, so he should feel free to talk about him as much as he wants.

Going through this process will not only help to heal the wound between your son and his father, support your son in his pain, and honor Lager—it will also do something just as important: set the stage for navigating loss with grace, empathy, and resilience, which is a gift that your son will carry into the future.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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