The death of a pet is a difficult and often heartbreaking event. Pets truly can become members of our family. The loss of one of these members is often a child’s first experience with death. Preparing your child for this loss, answering questions, and helping them cope are important steps in preparing for the passing of a beloved family member.
Preparing for a Loss
Depending upon the events that surround the death of your pet, you may have time to prepare your child or you may be breaking the news after the fact. If your pet is older or had health issues, spend time talking with your child about his/her feelings. It is helpful, if possible, to have the child say goodbye before the pet dies. When breaking the news after your pet has passed away, be honest. The Humane Society cautions parents from trying to protect children by saying the pet ran away or went to live somewhere else, as it could cause your child to expect the pet’s return and feel betrayed after discovering the truth.
Your child is sure to have questions about the death of a pet. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reminds families the importance of answering children’s questions about the loss of a pet simply but honestly, using terms and concepts the child understands. Some questions are easier than others. It’s okay to say “I don’t know” or “I wish that I knew that answer.” Let your child know it is normal to miss a pet after it dies and encourage them to come to you with questions or for reassurance and comfort.
Helping to Cope
After a pet has passed away, it is important for adults to allow themselves to show their own grief. Showing your own vulnerability may reassure your child that sadness is okay and may help them work through their own grief. Providing your child opportunities to remember their pet is an important part in helping them to heal. It helps for them to talk about the pet with friends and family. Conversations about the pet, both its life and its passing, should be seen as normal and encouraged. After a pet has died, children may want to have a ceremony and bury the pet, or even make a memorial. Other children may write poems and stories, or make drawings of the pet.
The loss of a pet is difficult for everyone, but it can be especially difficult to help children navigate. Taking the time to prepare your child for the death of a pet, answering their questions while being open and honest, and finding ways to help them to cope are essential means to easing a child’s loss.