The loss of a beloved pet can be a child’s first experience with death and grief. Addressing his immediate emotions also presents a tremendous opportunity to help him learn greater life lessons — and can help you manage your own grief in the process. Kids naturally have many questions when a pet dies. How you answer them can help the grieving process along, and move your child toward a greater understanding of the cycle of life.
Tell the truth
No matter how a pet passes, telling the truth is important. Yes, this can be hard to do, but lying to your kids about death — and what it means — can have lasting repercussions.
First, you need to tell the truth that the death actually happened. The loved pet is gone and is not coming back. Telling a child that the pet “went away” leaves the idea that it may come back. And since that’s not going to happen, you risk prolonging the grieving process instead of helping it. It’s just not fair.
Then there’s the truth about how the pet died. If the pet died naturally of old age, discuss the fact that bodies wear out over many years — and that this happens much faster in pets than in humans. Reassure your child about her (and your) life expectancy. If the pet died due to an accident, be clear that there were real injuries, not “little boo boos.” If the pet had a serious illness and had to be euthanized, be honest about that, too — and about measures that the vet took to help the pet, and why she made certain decisions. You don’t have to go into graphic, gory detail, but you do need to tell the truth.
Validate their feelings
The grief process is complex in any situation and unique to each person. Dismissing any feeling that is a part of it can prolong it. We have a saying in our family that feelings — all of them — are okay; it’s what you do with them that makes a difference. Talking about the various feelings that go along with grief helps a child process them. Just like adults, they can feel a range of emotions over a loss, from sadness to anger and everything in between. By talking about our feelings, all of them, we give our children the tools to channel feelings constructively.
Say a formal goodbye
After one of our aged cats died, a friend suggested a terrific book, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, by Judith Viorst. I immediately checked the book out of the library and read it with the kids. We decided that we’d each write our 10 favorite things about our beloved kitty, read them aloud at a little ceremony by the backyard grave we’d chosen, and bury the notes with her. It was a beautiful bit of time on a sunny January afternoon that helped each of us accept that she was, indeed, gone.
Whether a formal funeral for a cat, a moment of silence for a fish or a family walk at your dog’s favorite beach, ceremonies of closure can be very helpful in the grief process, difficult though they may be. Allowing your child to contribute ideas on saying goodbye in these little ceremonies can be very meaningful for her.
Allow them to remember
After the death’s initial shock and pain, you may be surprised when and how memories of that pet surface. Initially, there will be much sadness and probably many tears, but over time, the content of the memories will become more associated with happier times — even if they still are bittersweet. Your child may want to carry a remembrance of the pet for a while: A picture, perhaps, or a dog’s ID tags on a backpack zipper pull.
As much as we wish otherwise, we can’t protect our kids from every difficult thing in life. Allowing your child time and space to experience grief may be a hard thing to watch, even as you are grieving the loss of the pet yourself, but it is, sadly, a necessary part of life. Helping your children along — grieving with them — can help them learn constructive and valuable ways to manage the very challenging emotions they are bound to encounter in life.
Tell us: How do you help your child overcome the death of a beloved pet? Comment below!