For many children, the death of their pet is their first experience with grief and loss. Losing a pet deserves very special attention and adults should not try to hide their sorrow.Talking about the pet afterwards is also wise because the pet deserves to be remembered as a part of the family and one of the child’s most wonderful friends. A child is prone to certain misconceptions about the subject of death and is often keenly aware that something is not right with his or her pet.
When a child experiences the death of a beloved pet, he or she may experience emotional reactions that can be painful and frightening. Here are several ways to help children cope with these reactions in a healthy way.
Find a quiet place where you can talk without interruption. Tell your child in simple language that their pet has died and what caused the death. If necessary, explain what the word “death” means. Avoid overloading your child with details.
Answer all questions truthfully in words children can understand. Inconsistent or incomplete answers may leave your child more unsettled and upset than hearing the truth itself.
Encourage the expression of feelings. Children will model their behaviour after their parents.
Try drawing, writing and talking together about the pet with your child.
Share your beliefs, hopes and faith about the soul or spirit of pets.
Children younger than five years have difficulty understanding the finality of death. They may need several explanations, long after the pet is gone, as to why he or she does not come back. This age group also takes words literally, so it is best not to use the phrase “put to sleep” with young children. From ages five to nine, children tend to perceive death as a punishment. They must be reassured that the pet did not die because of something the parents or they did or did not do. After age nine, children have a more realistic concept of death and can understand religious or philosophical ideas about it. Participating in a burial or memorial service for the pet, if possible, can make the child feel better. As well, you might:
- Create a keepsake box or album with pictures, stories and mementos of the pet’s life.
- Light a candle, place fresh flowers and a special framed picture near it.
- Plant a tree or a garden in memory of the pet.
- Donate money to a favourite charity in memory of the pet.
- Your veterinary staff can help by giving you a lock of their fur as a keepsake.
Children process their thoughts and feelings by “doing”. By helping to guide your children, you will be giving them an important life tool: a model for how to say good-bye and a framework for dealing with death and other significant changes or losses they will experience in the future.