Many people view their pets as important members of their family. Naturally, losing a beloved pet can cause extreme grief for the entire family, but children in particular can have a difficult time coping with their pet’s death. This may be a child’s first exposure to death, and kids often have a hard time comprehending what it really means. It falls on parents to help their child understand and learn to cope with the traumatic experience of losing their pet. It takes extra attention and loving care to ensure that children are able to accept the death of their pet and recover from the loss.
Children are malleable and impressionable, and how they see others handle a pet’s passing will color their view of death and dying. It’s fine for them to see your tears and to shed their own. On the other hand, uncontrollable grief will frighten them, so if you must “cry your eyes out” over your lost pet, it’s best to do it in private, and make sure their own bouts of tears are not overly extreme. Infants and young children won’t grasp the concept of death, but they will still pick up on the emotions of other family members.
It’s important for parents to understand that their children will experience many different emotions as they move through the “five stages of grief” (as outlined by psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying) – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. They may also experience feelings of guilt, and may worry that something they did caused the pet to die.
What to Say to a Child When Their Pet Dies
To a child, the death of a pet is like losing a best friend. You can explain to them that it’s okay to miss their pet and feel sad that their companion is gone. Never dismiss their feelings or discourage them from showing their emotions, as in “big boys don’t cry.” Bottling up feelings of any kind is detrimental to body and soul in the long run. Comfort them without coddling, and reassure them that the pet’s death was not their fault.
When explaining to children that their pet has died, it’s best to keep it simple, straightforward and honest. Do not be afraid to use the words “death” and “dying,” and to convey the finality of the situation. Simply tell them their pet has died and will not be returning. Explanations that include difficult-to-grasp concepts such as “gone to heaven” or “the Rainbow Bridge” will likely just confuse the child, especially the younger ones who won’t understand what these things mean. Telling them that their pet is asleep or has gone to live with a relative can also be confusing, and they may be waiting for it to wake up or come home.
Activities to Help a Child Get Past the Sadness
For many children, the grief of losing a pet is not something they can easily recover from. They can eventually get past it, however, to the point where thinking of their former pet brings happy memories instead of sadness. Here are some things you can do to help your child cope with the death of their pet:
1. Have your child draw or paint a picture of their pet, and display it proudly. They could also write a letter to their pet, or write a special poem or story about their pet.
2. Help your child create a photo scrapbook of their pet’s life, from their first days with the family. Include words on each page of special memories, favorite toys and treats, or describe the pictures.
3. If you plan to bury the pet in your backyard, your child may want to help you create a special place for the grave. They could plant pretty flowers or a tree seedling near it, or decorate a headstone.
4. Plan a memorial service for the pet and ask your child if they want to invite their friends. Whether your service is somber or celebratory is up to you and your child.
5. Gather your family and have everyone share their favorite memories of the pet. This helps them to understand that everyone in the family loved the pet and misses it.
6. Encourage your child to engage in the activities they love and to try new ones, which will help them not dwell on their sadness.
7. Find a Pet Loss Support Group in your area and attend a meeting with your child, if they want to go. Realizing that other people are experiencing the same feelings can help your child to not feel so alone.
Recommended Pet Loss Resources
There are lots of good books that can help your child cope with the loss of their beloved pet. Here are just a few to consider: Saying Goodbye to Lulu by Corinne Demas; I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm; The Rainbow Bridge: Pet Loss Is Heaven’s Gain byNiki Behrikis Shanahan; Cold Noses at the Pearly Gates by Gary Kurz; Jasper’s Day by Marjorie Blain Parker; Desser the Best Ever Cat by Maggie Smith.