Dealing with the loss of a pet can be very difficult for a child. As parents, we hate to see our children hurting and grieving, and we want to be able to explain the loss in a manner that is gentle and kind.
Using the right words
When talking to your children about the death of a pet, it’s important to be honest and clear. Speak to them in a way they can understand. Don’t use euphemisms such as, “put to sleep,” which may confuse or scare your child. “Using the word died is very important,” says Lisa Athan, MA, a grief recovery specialist and executive director of Grief Speaks in Springfield. It conveys finality and allows the child to relate the pet’s death to other known occurrences—in movies, in books, and on TV.
Before telling your child that the pet has died, however, Athan suggests preparing her by saying, “Something very sad has happened,” so the death doesn’t come as a complete shock. Above all, be truthful. “We do a disservice to our children when we shield them from the truth. It makes them distrust us,” states Athan.
Going to the vet's office
A few years ago, pet loss hit home for Lisa Athan and her four children when their family cat was euthanized. Athan explained the situation to her children in a straightforward, honest manner and involved them in the decision-making process. Three of her four children wanted to go along to the vet’s office. However, her 10-year-old daughter chose to wait in the lobby while Athan and her other two children went into the exam room with the cat.
Don’t make your children feel bad about their decisions regarding the pet’s death and funeral. Often a child’s first experience with death is pet loss. “Many kids will remember how this was handled for the rest of their lives,” says Athan.
How children of each age group grieve differently—>
How children grieve
“Grief is a very individual process,” says Deborah Antinori, MA, LPC, and author of “Journey Through Pet Loss.” Children will react differently; some may withdraw, while others may become aggressive. “Being tuned into your own child’s temperament and tendencies when there is a challenge that makes them vulnerable is very important,” advises the Basking Ridge therapist.
The child’s age, too, is a factor in how he or she will react to the loss. Here’s a general guideline broken down by age group:
Birth to age 2
A child may withdraw, or he may cry and cling. He may also sleep too much or too little. Parents should reassure children by hugging and holding them. They should also stick to normal daily routines as much as possible.
Ages 2 to 5
Children may believe the pet is asleep and will wake up, or they may believe the pet will return after it is buried. Parents can help children understand their feelings by talking with them, drawing pictures, or engaging in dramatic play.
Ages 6 to 11
Children in this age group grieve sporadically. They go in and out of moments of grieving. They may think death was their fault. Parents can help their children work through their feelings by encouraging them to draw a picture or write a letter to the pet.
Ages 12 to 17
The death may remind teens of a previous loss; it may also prompt questions about mortality and spiritual beliefs. Teens and tweens commonly express a fear of parental loss following a pet’s death. Parents can help by giving teens honest information and listening to their responses. Teens need their feelings validated, but they may not initiate the conversations themselves; periodically ask them how they are coping and how they are feeling.
Whether you bury the pet in the backyard or choose a cremation option at your vet’s office, it’s important to include your children in a funeral or memorial of some kind. Allow your children to say goodbye. Share any religious beliefs you may have, and let your children know that they may come back to the memorial spot whenever they feel sad or want to think about their pet.
Sometimes children mask their feelings. They appear to be finished grieving and won’t talk about the animal anymore. It’s up to you to open the lines of communication and encourage them to share their thoughts. Use holidays or the anniversary of your pet’s birthday as an opportunity to help your children express their feelings.
“Let your child/teenager talk about their feelings,” advises Antinori. “Listen with love and compassion; use it as an opportunity to teach about life’s hard lessons and to become closer.”
Natalie Friedrich Kidd is a freelance writer and the mother of two children.