Childhood and pets are made to go together and kids learn a lot from the relationship they form with the family pet. There a proven developmental benefits including an understanding of responsibility, interpersonal interactions, and communication. And, the death of a family pet is often a child’s first encounter with loss. Parents often face a double challenge: first soothing the grief over the loss of this faithful friend; and then trying to explain the concept of death. Here are some tips to help you teach your child about death:
Break the news appropriately. Telling children that a pet has died is a tremendously difficult task for most parents. The following guidelines can help you do it gently:
- Tell them one-on-one. Find a quiet place where you and your child will not be distracted or disturbed.
- Be honest. Don’t try to shield your child from the “adult” experience of death – it won’t work. Death is a part of life with which we all must come to terms – help your child start gaining a healthy understanding of it.
- Make sure your child understands what “dying” means. Don’t be afraid to use the word. Explain that this is permanent and NOT THE CHILD’S FAULT. Don’t be ambiguous here – statements like “He went to a better place” or “She left us” may leave your child wondering if his pet would have stayed if only he had been nicer/better/more responsible. Saying that the pet “went to sleep” or “is at the hospital” can lead to long-term fears in children.
- Monitor for overload. Pay close attention to how much information your child can handle. Base what you disclose on the age, maturity, and life experience of your child.
- Be prepared to answer questions. After briefly explaining what happened, allow your child to direct the conversation. There are many terrific children’s books aimed at helping with this topic as well.
Provide ongoing support. Children may feel like they have lost a major source of support. Be sure that you help them find healthy alternatives.
- Adults who can listen and provide nurturing often fill this role better than peers. Be sure that the adults in your child’s life are aware of the death.
- Don’t allow anyone to minimize the child’s feelings. Statements like “he was just a cat” are not helpful. The loss of a well-loved pet a child has lived with for many years is often more traumatic than the death of a distant relative he barely knew.
- Model appropriate grieving by sharing your own feelings of loss. You are teaching your child that grief is natural and okay by allowing him to see yours.
- Help them express themselves. Children gather information from a wide range of sources – television, friends, books, other adults. It is impossible for you to understand what your child thinks about death unless you ask them.
Help them move on. After the initial shock and grief, you will need to help your child go on with life.
- Memorializing the pet. It can help kids to find special ways to remember a pet. You might have a ceremony to bury your pet or just share memories of what the pet meant to each family member.
- Talk about your pet often. Be sure to mention the pet in loving, affectionate ways. Children need to know that even as the pain of loss fades, the good memories stay around.
When to get help. Children may take longer to grieve the loss than adults and that is okay. A short time of depression, acting out, or moodiness can be expected. Warning signs of severe or prolonged grief will vary depending on child’s age, relationship with the pet, and emotional maturity, but here on some general guidelines for recognizing when your child may require additional help:
- not interested in usual activities, withdrawing from friends and family
- eating considerably less than usual
- reverting to pre-potty training or bed wetting
- afraid of being alone or going to sleep, nightmares
- preoccupied with thoughts of death
If you notice that your child is having an unusually difficult time, know that help is available. There are many grief and loss support resources and hotlines, many of them free of charge, available.