Having pets can be a rich, rewarding experience for children, providing them with memories they’ll treasure for a lifetime. It does, however, have its difficult moments. Losing a pet is often the first encounter a child has with death, and even if it’s not, it may have a far bigger day-to-day effect on that child’s life than the loss of an elderly relative who rarely visited. It’s a difficult thing to deal with, and it’s a situation in which parents really need to be there to offer guidance and support.
What not to do
In thinking about how to help a child deal with such a loss, it’s important to know what not to do.
- Don’t say the pet “went away.” Not knowing what has happened is often harder than facing reality.
- Don’t describe death as being like going to sleep. This can make children fear that they might die in their sleep.
- Don’t say, “It was just an animal.” This may have been your child’s closest friend.
- Don’t insist that grieving stops quickly. Everyone grieves differently and children will need time to process their feelings.
Preparing for loss
Although nothing makes death easy and the last thing you want to do is make your child fearful about mortality, death is less shocking for a child if you have been honest from the start about the life expectancy of the pet. Contextualizing death can help a lot. Explain to your child that everybody dies but new people and animals are born, in the cycle of life. Help them to understand death as a natural phenomenon. If a pet is ill for some time, explain that after death it won’t be suffering anymore.
Euthanizing a pet
Letting an ailing pet go is difficult for adults, and it can be tempting to try and shut children out of the process in order to reduce the emotional strain involved. It’s usually much better for them if they can be part of it, understanding why it’s the kindest option. If the vet is comfortable about them being there when it happens, that can do a lot to demystify death and make it less disturbing.
Dealing with complicated emotions
Sometimes children react to death in ways that are confusing for adults. This means it’s important to encourage them to talk about their feelings, and to really listen. They may not really understand why the death happened and feel they are responsible because they weren’t perfect at caring for the pet, or because they did something else bad and think this was a punishment. Help them to work through their concerns and explain things where necessary.
Learning from loss
Although losing a pet is very painful, it’s also an opportunity to learn and to prepare for the inevitable loss of a loved one later in life. This means it’s a good time to talk through thoughts and beliefs around death. Your children may have fears around their own mortality and yours. Avoid telling them that no one else they love will die, as this can make things much harder for them when someone does. Instead, talk calmly about how life can go on.
As a rule, it’s much easier to deal with death if there is a ritual afterwards to provide closure. Arranging a pet burial or cremation enables children to say goodbye properly and move on to think about the pet in a different way. This doesn’t mean that grief will disappear, but it reduces the sense of abruptness that often exists around death, and it means there can be a grave to visit or an urn to look at as a way of refocusing related emotions.
Continuing the conversation
Although a funeral helps to bring the immediate phase of grieving to an end, it doesn’t mean that conversations about the pet have to stop. Some children may need years to fully process what has happened. This doesn’t mean, however, that they will be upset for years. Gradually, the conversation can be steered around to happy memories. It can help to watch videos of the pet as a family, or to experiment with creative ways of remembering, like making collage pictures. This sends the message that although we sometimes lose the ones we love the happy feelings we gain from knowing them can stay with us. It reassures children that it’s still worth investing in relationships and that the experience of loving others brings lasting rewards.