Pets are a source of joy and companionship in our lives. The happiness they bring us is inextricably linked to the grief we feel when we lose them to illness, accidents, or old age. For children, this is often their first meaningful encounter with death, and they feel the loss keenly. They miss their dear friend who was there to play with them after school, comforted them when they were sad, and snuggled up with them in the evenings.
When talking with children about the death of a pet, it’s best to use simple, direct language. Tell them what happened (sparing any details that would cause a traumatic image) and allow them to ask questions. Be sure to use words like “death,” “dead,” or “dying.” Beware of euphemisms. Saying that “Kitty went to sleep” may make children afraid they will die when they fall asleep, for example, and saying “Buster ran away” may make them feel sad and wonder why their beloved dog abandoned the family.
TAILORING YOUR TALK FOR SPECIFIC AGES
It’s important to tailor your explanation to the child’s age.
Children 2 and under will feel stress and grief but will be unable to perceive the source. Give them some extra love and attention during this time.
Kids 3-5 years old do not really understand the permanence of death. It may be necessary to explain the permanence concept more than once.
Children 6-8 are aware death is permanent, but feel it happens to others, not to them.
Those 9-11 begin to understand it is inevitable, even for them.
Children often worry that some action (not taking the dog for enough walks or being annoyed by the cat) or thought on their part may have caused the pet to die.
Children may ask what happens to the animal after it dies, and for this, it’s all right to share your beliefs. It’s also ok to say, “I don’t know,” and convey that it’s a mystery.
If an animal is euthanized, it’s best to explain to a young child that the pet was in pain and was unable to be helped, and that the vet had to help it die. For children older than 7, it’s all right to ask them if they would like to be present when the animal is euthanized, or if they would like to come to say goodbye after it has happened. Some older children may be emotionally mature enough to comfort the pet during this process. Ask the veterinarian to explain what will happen to the body.
HELPING THROUGH THE GRIEVING PROCESS
Children express grief in many ways and in differing intensities. They may seem to play normally, but suddenly see an image or something on television that triggers intense grief. Let them know it’s ok to cry and to express their grief. Older children (7-9) may ask some morbid questions about what happens to the animal after it dies. They will also observe your grief. It’s ok to cry in front of your child; it conveys to them that you loved and miss your pet. Intense sobbing, however, may be overwhelming or frightening to a young child.
It’s often helpful to have a creative memorial for your special pet friend. Planting a tree in their memory, drawing pictures of the pet, assembling a photo album or even telling each other funny stories about them are all good ways to celebrate their life. Always talk about the pet with affection. It’s important to let kids know that grief will fade, but that the good memories and the love will be there forever.
WHEN TO SEEK HELP
If sadness seems to be constant, rather than coming and going.
If significant sadness lasts longer than a month.
If your child is having difficulty sleeping or functioning in school, or having symptoms such as stomach aches that didn’t exist before the pet’s death.
Ask if they would like to talk more about the pet’s death with someone, either with you or by themselves.
GETTING A NEW PET
Don’t rush into getting a new pet right away. Allow time for healing to take place. This could take as long as 6 months, and different family members may need more or less time to feel closure. Decide which (if any) of the old pet’s things you would like to keep, and which you will discard or donate to a local shelter. When everyone is ready, involve the whole family in choosing a new pet — not as a replacement, but as a way to welcome a new friend and companion into your loving family.
Dr. Susan Stevens, who co-teaches our Puberty. Seriously? class for girls ages 9-12, joined Kids Plus in 2012.