Death and dying are two of the hardest facts of life to explain to children. It is natural to want to shield children from the pain of loss, however we cannot protect them from death and grief and they respond best to honesty and compassion. This is often their first experience with death, and is an opportunity to help them learn how to grieve in a healthy, productive, and healing way. How we handle this event can have a far-reaching impact on our children’s understanding of death and dying.
When a child experiences the death of a beloved pet, he or she may experience emotional reactions that can be painful and frightening. Actions that you can take to help children experience those reactions as healthy events include:
Here are several ways to help your child achieve these tasks:
First, find a quiet place where you can talk without interruption.
Tell the child simply that their pet has died and what caused the death. If necessary, explain what the word “dead” means. Avoid overloading your children with details.
Answer all questions truthfully in words they can understand.
Inconsistent or incomplete answers may leave the child more unsettled than the truth itself.
Encourage expression of feelings.
Children will model their parents’ behaviors. Try drawing, writing, and talking together about the pet.
Avoid terms like “gone away”, “put to sleep”, “passed on”, and “lost”. A child could misunderstand the common phrase “put to sleep”, indicating the adult’s denial of death, and develop a terror of bedtime. Suggesting to a child that “God has taken” the pet may create conflict in the child, who could become angry at the higher power for cruelty toward a pet and the child. Instead, simple and accurate terms such as “dead” and “stopped breathing”, establishes that the body is no longer alive biologically.
Share your beliefs, hopes, and faiths about the soul or spirit of pets.
Depending on your own personal beliefs, you may say “The spirit of our special pet is with God in Heaven”, “the spirit is the warm feeling of love in our hearts”, or “the spirit is in nature”.
A funeral, memorial service,
burial, or placement of ashes encourages healthy closure to the loss process.
Encourage children to express their grief by drawing pictures of their pet,
and sharing what the pictures mean to them. Always listen to what they have to say, and praise them for their thoughts. If a child would like the picture put in his/her room, then honor that wish. It could keep the pet closer to the child at bedtime until the grief has subsided.