For countless Americans, there’s truly nothing more rewarding than having a pet. In fact, the 2017-2018 National Pet Owners’ Survey found that 68 percent of households (or 85 million families) owned a pet during this period. Even more encouraging is the fact that approximately 3.2 million animals are adopted from shelters every year in the United States, meaning that there are millions of cats, dogs, and other creatures who gain a second chance at finding their forever homes.
Bringing a four-legged (or fishy) friend into your home can allow you to make amazing memories and teach your children about both important responsibilities and unconditional love. Around 66 percent of Americans said their pets fill the all-important role of best friend, which can make it all the more devastating when your pet becomes ill or shows the signs of old age. Although evidence shows that the lifespans of our pets have certainly increased in recent years, the sad truth is that our pets don’t live as long as we do.
For many children, the loss of a pet is their first introduction to both grief and the concept of death. This can be an emotionally difficult subject to approach, but parents can help their children better understand the circle of life—and bring comfort to the entire family—by keeping the following tips in mind.
Break the news gently but honestly
Most parents will dread the moment they have to tell their child about the fate of the family pet. It’s natural to feel anxious and to want to spare your child from emotional pain. However, it’s better to be honest and turn this into a teachable moment, rather than to deceive so as not to hurt your child’s feelings.
In other words, parents should not lie about what happened to your beloved dog or cat. Telling your child that your pet had to go away to live somewhere else or that they ran away will likely lead to more questions (and more lies). While it’s important to keep in mind your child’s age and ability to fully understand your meaning, you should not make up a story to explain away your pet’s absence. Instead, be sensitive to your child’s feelings, calm his or her fears, and gently explain the situation to the best of your ability.
If your pet was very old and had to be euthanized, for example, you might want to reassure your child that the veterinarian did everything possible to help your pet and that your pet would not have gotten any better. By explaining to them that this was the kindest way to ensure your pet was no longer in pain and that your pet was at peace rather than being scared, this may provide substantial comfort and help them understand the circumstances surrounding death after an illness.
You may also be able to emotionally prepare your child a bit better when your pet has an illness or dies of old age. But when a pet passes away suddenly, helping your child understand can be challenging. You do not have to go into details, but it’s important to calmly explain what transpired and answer any questions your child may have.
Have a memorial ceremony
For many families, a memorial ceremony can help to facilitate closure. It can also bring back wonderful memories and recognize the important impact your pet had on the entire household. The type of ceremony your family holds can be up to you, and your child should participate only if they feel comfortable to do so. Some people hold funerals while others plant a tree in remembrance. Many families opt for cremation and burial services offered by companies specializing in compassionate after-life care, like Fur Ever Friends Petuary. You may even want to create a yearly ritual to pay tribute to your pet or create a place family members can go when they want to feel close to those special memories.
Remember that your children will look to your own behaviors when learning how to deal with death. Show them that it’s natural to feel sad, lonely, or frustrated after the death of your pet, and that it’s okay to talk about those feelings (or wait until they’re ready to do so). Sharing stories about other pets in your own past and how difficult it was to say goodbye can help your child to know that she or he is not alone. You should reminisce often about your pet and about how much love and laughter your pet brought into the home. Reassure your child that the pain of losing this cherished member of the family will fade, but that the happiness and love your pet brought into everyone’s lives will not.
Read age appropriate literature
Books can be incredible way for children to learn about life’s biggest lessons, and reading to your children can provide an incredible way to bond and learn together. There are numerous books available today that adeptly tackle the subject of grieving for a pet. Reading these books on an ongoing basis and having brief discussions about them with your child can allow you to assess your child’s emotional state and provide them with an opportunity to express themselves and ask questions.
Whether you opt to read books that have a religious focus or ones that don’t talk about heaven at all, this literature should be deemed appropriate for your child’s age and level of understanding. The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement notes that children aged seven to nine may ask more questions than younger children due to their increased awareness of the world around them, while children between the ages of four and six might vaguely understand what death is, but not the permanence of it. Turning to literature may allow you to talk openly about the ideas surrounding the death of a pet with your child and present these concepts in a way they will be able to grasp.
Many stories are told through the viewpoint of a child, which can help your own children work through their feelings and alleviate isolation. The lessons outlined in these books can lead to further discussions and even expression of grief through play, both of which can allow your child to process and realize that mourning is a process that takes time, patience, and practice.
Create some keepsakes
In addition to a memorial site, you may consider other ways to let the memories of your pet live on within your home. Creating a memento with your dog’s collar or your cat’s footprints to display on the fireplace mantle may be a nice touch. You might also explore the idea of having a personalized portrait, holiday ornament, tribute video, or decorative keepsake made to honor the spirit of your pet. Not only can this allow your whole family to be reminded of your pet every time they view it, but its creation can provide all family members with an opportunity to contribute their input and share fond memories that can determine the style of the piece.
No matter your age, coping with the loss of a pet will never be easy. But by speaking honestly with your children, openly expressing your emotions, and prioritizing the remembrance of this beloved member of the family, you will all make immense strides in the healing process.