The joy of bringing a pet into your family brings about amazing opportunities to share with your children but one of the most challenging situations can be explaining the death of a pet to a child and especially to a young child. Oftentimes this is the first time they have to deal with death and how you handle it can have a lasting impact on the child.
There’s no one perfect way to handle the death of a pet but there are certainly key things to remember and share with your child. Whether or not your family is religious is one key consideration. It’s important to remember that children don’t necessarily generalize and their thoughts are often very concrete. They can often misinterpret a statement in the most literal sense so it’s important to not miscommunicate with them and potentially scare them. You don’t want to talk about putting your pet “to sleep” because then they might be afraid of going “to sleep” or something to happening to a sibling or parent when they “go to sleep”. You also want to make sure you don’t use the excuse that your dog or cat was “sick” because then the child may worry when another family member gets “sick” too.
Be open and honest with your children. Keep it simple and age-appropriate. Share your own grief and sadness with them. You can explain that your pet was very, very, very old emphasizing the old age of your pet trying to avoid the misunderstanding that as parents or grandparents we sometimes refer to ourselves as “old” so the child wonders if we’re going to die just because we’re “old” too.
It can be helpful to talk about how “our family will always be together and that our pets will always be with us in our hearts”.
It can be a very individualized approach with each child depending on their age and how involved the pet was in their life. For instance, if the dog slept with the child then a photo of the pet in the room can be comforting to the child. Listen to your child and give them the opportunity to talk to you about their feelings. What are their questions and observations? Remember to respond rather than assume. Think about the ways your child interacted with your pet and be sensitive to how your child might now be feeling. Did your child take your dog for a daily walk? Did they curl up together and read or watch television, or did they play together every afternoon? Oftentimes the value of a ceremonial closure to the event can be very comforting. This is not an exact science and each child will handle the situation differently.
Reading a book together about the loss of a pet can oftentimes be very helpful. Here are some suggestions.
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst (wonderful for younger children)
When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers (as in Mr. Rogers)
Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant
Sometimes children actually surprise us with their open and honest interpretations. A parent was explaining to their child that their dog was dying and how sad it was that dogs lived such short lives together. The child said, “well of course, it takes people so much longer to get it and dogs just know how to love life and live it to the fullest every day!”
Your pet can give your child one more final gift in their passing. Helping children understand death is a very important life long lesson to learn.