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Mommy, is my goldfish sleeping? Dealing with pet loss

Abbi Perets lives in Houston, TX, with her husband and five children.






how to say goodbye

When your pet is truly a member of your family, dealing with his death can be devastating. Children, in particular, can feel as if they've lost a sibling. How can you help your kids cope? Different approaches are appropriate for kids of different ages. Here's what to do.

Help yourself first.

On airplanes, flight attendants instruct that in the event of a loss of cabin pressure, put your own mask on first, then help others around you. You're no good to anyone if you can't function, so take the time you need to process your own grief. Once you've done that, you'll be ready -- and able -- to help your kids.

Talking to toddlers and young children.

Young children -- ages 2 to 4 -- will probably have a lot of questions, so be ready to answer them. Start by talking to them in a matter of fact way; "I have sad news. Bobo died yesterday. Do you know what that means?" You can talk about your pet's body being hurt, or old, or sick, and not being able to recover. Be sure to reassure your child that her own sickness, age, and injuries (and yours) are not life-threatening.

Your child might ask when her pet will be better. This is your opportunity to explain that death is permanent, and you are all sad and miss Bobo, and you can always remember your pet. Don't be disturbed if your child insists that her pet is coming back or doesn't seem to accept your explanation. Just keep repeating it, and it will sink in over time.

Talking to older children.

By grade school, kids typically understand that death is permanent and that everything dies. But they don't have an easy time showing their feelings, so don't be surprised if they tell you they don't care. They're also more curious about physical details, so be prepared to answer questions or to help them find answers somewhere else.

Tell kids that it's okay to be sad -- or even angry. Give them a safe place, and a way, to express their feelings. Be specific, particularly with boys. "It's okay to cry. It makes us all very sad. I can sit here with you, or I can help you find a place where you can be alone if you want."

Let your kids know that it's okay to talk about death, and that they can ask you anything they want to know. Don't promise that everything will be okay, but reassure them if they are overly fearful.

Find the right ritual.

Talk to your kids about how they'd like to say goodbye to their pet. They can write a letter, hold a funeral, have a special meal, or find another way to commemorate how important their pet was and to find closure.

Don't expect healing to be immediate. In fact, it's not uncommon for kids to still have questions even a year later. But the pain will pass, and you will all feel better.

More on family pets:

When a pet dies
How to adopt a pet
Kids and pets

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