The loss of a pet, whether it be a fish, hamster, cat, or dog may be your child’s first experience with death. And it can be a significant loss. Children and pets are best friends. How many adorable photos are there online of babies cuddling with dogs? They just seem to go hand in hand. I know my nieces adore my pets…in fact, when Face-Timing they often want to see more of Cassie and Elli than of Aunt Paulette…alas. Pets provide children love, affection, and a playmate. They teach responsibility, gentleness, and so much more. So how can you help your child cope with this loss?
- I know it’s tempting yet do not try to protect your child by telling them that the dog or cat ran away or by using abstract terms that children may not understand, such as Spot “went to heaven” or “went to sleep.” This will only confuse your child, as they may think that the pet may come back or wake up. And they may feel angry when they learn the truth. So be direct and tell your child that Spot was sick or injured and died. Then you can go on to explain death in an age appropriate way.
- Depending on the age of your child, consider using a children’s book to help your child understand death and pet loss. A quick Amazon search will yield many choices.
- If the death is planned, as in euthanasia, inform your child prior and allow them the chance to say goodbye, to give a final hug and kiss.
- Encourage your child to express their feelings and normalize their feelings, letting them know that feeling sad or angry or whatever they feel is okay. And recognize that children often express their feelings behaviorally. So you might notice some developmental regression, withdrawal, lack of appetite, or difficulty sleeping.
- Be a role model. It is okay to express your feelings rather than hiding them from your child. This helps normalize these feelings for your child and demonstrates to them how to constructively express feelings and cope with them. Remember children follow what you do more than what you say.
- Reassure your child that the death was in no way their fault and that other loved ones will not abandon them. Children are concrete thinkers, not developing abstract thinking until about 7-9 years of age, so younger children may believe they caused the death or that others will die as well.
- Make a memorial, something that will help celebrate your pet and all that they gave you. Have your child make a scrapbook. Frame a photo. Make sure your vet takes a paw print or clip a bit of fur. If you have property that allows, bury your pet and place a marker. Allow your child to keep a nametag, collar, or your pet’s favorite toy.
- Do not rush to get a “replacement” pet. Doing so may rob your child of a valuable life experience, that of grieving. Keep open communication and discuss when the family may be ready to get a new pet. There is no “right” timeline. What is right is what works for your family. And when the time comes, open your heart anew. Yes, that will mean another loss eventually yet the years of joy and love our pets bring into our lives is priceless.
“The dog was created specially for children. He is the god of frolic.” – Henry Ward Beecher