[D]o I tell them beforehand that it’s coming? Should I tell them when he’s sick? Do I wait until afterward and say he ran away or went to a farm? These are all questions that parents ask when it comes to preparing to discuss with their kids about the loss of a beloved family pet.
Existing grief research supports trying to be as honest and direct with your kids as possible. But, you need to take into account their age and level of emotional development. Despite the fact that pet loss is often the first loss that children experience, there is a lack of research addressing the issue. Many pet grief support professionals utilize human loss literature. In addition, there are children’s books available (some of which are discussed in this article) that talk about pet loss in a story setting, which may be useful for helping kids cope.
My neighbor helped her son understand the death of my dog by drawing pictures of Cleo sitting on a cloud “in heaven”. Another friend sat her kids down in the final weeks before their cat Jimmy passed away and talked honesty about the fact that he was aging and getting sick, and may not live much longer. Since her kids had been through this before with previous pets, they already knew the meaning of the term “put down”.
While some euphemisms are okay to use, avoid saying “put to sleep”. Children are literal in their comprehension. If children hear that their beloved dog is going to be “put to sleep” and will never come home to be with the family again, they may fear their own bedtime, thinking that they might not see mommy or daddy again either. It is best to use very direct terms, such as “death” or “dying”.
In my friend’s case, by being open and honest with her children before the loss, she was able to include them in some of the decision-making and allow them to have time to say good-bye to their life-long buddy. While children may not decide when it is time to let a pet go, they can take part in pre-death cuddle sessions and have a chance to tell their animal companions how much they love them.
Children need the structure of setting aside time to grieve pre- and post-death, when possible, and may need more tactile ways to express their sadness over the loss.
A few tips for helping kids cope with the loss of a pet:
- Include your kids in memorializing your pet. They can even help in the planning of how you will honor the lost loved one. This may mean getting out art supplies, drawing pictures of the animal, making paintings that incorporate the pet’s paw print, looking through photos, and talking about the fun memories you had with the pet.
- As time goes on, as the acute emotional pain starts to dull, but the continued love for the deceased pet continues, you can talk to your kids about the lessons they learned from the pet that will continue to help and guide them throughout their lives such as love, compassion, responsibility, patience, and acceptance.
- Do not use the euphemism “put to sleep,” as it may be misinterpreted.
- Allow your children to grieve in their own way. They may prefer to draw, paint, or sculpt their pet out of clay, rather than talk about it.
- Let yourself grieve in front of your child, even if that means crying in front of them. This may be their first experience with loss, so they may look to you to learn that they don’t need to hide their feelings.
- Work together on creating a scrapbook of pictures of your pet. Talk about the memories each picture represents.
Remember, the death of a pet does not mean the end of the bond or the love. You and your children can continue to talk about and remember the wonderful times you had together.
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