Losing a beloved pet isn’t easy on anyone, but it can be particularly difficult for children to understand and deal with. If you’ve had your pet since before your child was born, it’s been a constant fixture in your child’s life, and its sudden absence can be confusing to them. If your child was particularly attached to the pet, it can be doubly hard to accept its death. A lot of how a child processes the information and then grieves is dependent on their age, as well as how you, as a parent, relay that information to them. Here are a few tips to keep in mind to help your child cope with a pet’s death.
Even if your child is very young, it’s best to be honest with them about a pet’s death. You may have to explain it a little more than you would to an older child, but try not to give your child the impression that death is a temporary state. If you fall back on the old “Scruffy went to a farm to run and play for the rest of his days” explanation, you run the risk of your child feeling abandoned and resentful, not understanding why Scruffy would leave for a place he liked better.
Upon the news of a pet’s death, your child will first need to make sense of the information, and then react to it. Allowing your child to grieve in whatever way feels natural to him or her is important. Let them know there’s no wrong way to grieve. Whether your child wants to cry, write a poem about or a letter to the pet, or hold a memorial service, allowing and even participating can help your child deal with the pain and sadness, which will help them deal with it later in life as well.
Children will undoubtedly have questions, especially younger kids who are only beginning to grasp the concept of death and its finality. They may ask simple questions like, is Fluffy coming back, or more difficult ones like, what happened to her body, or, where do animals go when they die? An older child may have more complex questions like, why couldn’t the vet “fix” your pet, or if the animal had been ill, why didn’t the pet meds work?
Declining to answer these questions, or not answering them fully will only perpetuate the lack of understanding in your child’s mind. But more importantly, it can scare them. Children, even very young ones, may begin to connect a pet’s death with death in general, and my become fearful about something happening to you, other family members, or even themselves. Being open and honest, and welcoming their questions will help to allay those fears.
Having a pet can be a learning experience for your child in many ways. They can learn to respect animals, to care for them, and to be responsible. But the time will eventually come for the hardest lesson of all—loss. The best thing you can do is be there to help your child through it.
Cover image by jeffbachman via Flickr.