Growing up I had several pets, and while the experience was filled with fond memories, there was an inevitable pain to pet ownership: death. Memories of taking my burly Golden Retriever to the vet to be euthanized, the experience of my parents telling me a car hit my cat, and sending my rabbit to the vet knowing her disease couldn’t be treated taught me about the tragedy of loss. In turn, the death of my pets taught me at a very young age the value of life.
Though experiencing the death of a pet is a sad and oftentimes confusing time for a child, if handled appropriately, the child can learn from the experience, appreciating the time spent with their pet and the precious gift of life.
The following ways can help your child cope with their pet’s death:
- Prepare your child:
If your child’s pet has a foreseen chance of death, such as a terminal illness or an age-related disease, discuss the realities of the situation with your child in a calm and supportive manner.
- Use appropriate terminology:
While it is important to understand the age and sensitivity of your child when discussing their pet’s death, be sure your message is still clear, as using phrases like “Your dog was put to sleep” may lead your child to believe the dog is sleeping and will wake up soon. Similarly, restricting key elements of the story may make your child feel confused, or even responsible.
- Break the bad news with sensitivity:
Find a quiet, peaceful place, as well as an appropriate time to talk to your child about their pet’s death. Choosing a chaotic place may not give you the time or space to handle the situation appropriately. For example, if you tell your child when you pick them up from school they may be embarrassed their classmates’ saw them upset.
- Model grief to your child:
They will look to you to see how you are grieving. Most likely you loved the pet as well, and showing them that you are healthfully expressing your sadness can demonstrate that the grieving process is both normal and healthy.
- Allow your child closure:
The end of your child’s relationship with their pet can often seem sudden and unexpected. Because of this, allow your child time to grieve the loss of their pet, ensuring they experience proper closure. Examples of closure are a funeral held in your backyard or at the place where the pet was buried, having family members say a few words about the pet, drawing a picture of the pet, or even setting aside a time to reminisce about favorite memories of time spent with the pet. It is important your child chooses how they want to participate in remembering the life of their pet, and that they feel included in the closure process.
Loosing a pet is a sad and difficult time for a child, and the experience will help shape your child’s view of grief and death. Since death is a part of life, you cannot hide its realities from your child, but instead, should help them learn how to express their grief, and ultimately celebrate the life of their beloved pet.