Saying goodbye to a companion is never easy, especially when you’re a child. Here are some tips for helping your child cope with the death of a pet.
Children and pets share a sibling-like bond. In many households, the family considers their pet a family member. There is nothing unusual about this. When your child is sad, a pet can provide comfort as a best friend and closest companion. If your child misbehaves and you scold, the family pet is a friend who will listen to the child’s side of the story. When you are busy or unable to spend time with your child, a pet can give your child a sense of security and continuity. When your child is teased or tormented by bullies at school, or feels unable to fit in with peers, a pet provides a friendship of pure acceptance and love, without judgment or criticism. And at night, if your child becomes frightened by shadows or by monsters in the closet, the family pet can cuddle and comfort the child to sleep.
Through the growing relationship with his or her pet, your child learns love and trust, develops responsibility and gains self-esteem.
The emotional turmoil a child feels at a pet’s death can be overwhelming. As adults, we attempt to protect children from grief because we consider it an adult problem that they should not have to deal with. But as we attempt to deal with the busyness of our own lives, we can easily trivialize a child’s loss and fail to give the respect, understanding and loving attention that he or she desperately needs.
The bereavement of pet loss will help your child learn healthy ways of resolution that will be of benefit later in adult life. He or she will be better prepared to cope with death in the future when early experiences provide a healthy, realistic understanding. You are your child’s guide, and you need to share in the learning and healing process.
Talking about death
As parents and adults, we have an obligation to begin a child’s education about death in a constructive manner. A child’s response to death is more unconditioned and curious than an adult’s. Education about death as an inevitable part of life can be a growth experience and an occasion for positive enlightenment.
If your child’s pet is diagnosed with sickness or injury that will result in death, you need to attempt to discuss pet death and grief with your child right away, before the pet dies. You may be surprised at your child’s willingness and awareness in discussing terminal illness or injury and death. When your family pet is ill or injured and a decision must be made to apply euthanasia, you need to include children in the decision-making process. This can be painful and upsetting, but it helps to bring forth emotions that may otherwise be suppressed or not understood. Explain why you feel you have made the right decision, and share your feelings. Young children who can’t articulate do not necessarily have to sit in on the decision making, but you do need to inform them of where their pet is going, and why.
Many adults talk with their children about death to reassure them that their pet will experience rebirth, or at least that the pet’s spirit continues. If your child is of an age to understand, you may wish to share and discuss in an elementary way theories concerning the afterlife and what happens at physical death. One idea is to use a “fairy tale format” for younger children. Telling a story addressing death that involves your spiritual beliefs can help your child best understand that death is a part of life, and that a Divine Source – a god, goddess, angel, creator – is watching over his or her pet in the afterlife.
It is often better to avoid any morbid details about the pet’s death, autopsy and other physical matters. These facts may frighten your child.
Try to answer your child’s questions in a simple way, but do not oversimplify. “Fifi went on a long trip” or “Jake was sick and had to go away” is not a positive, constructive explanation.
The best way to begin the discussion is to ask your child what he or she thinks death is. Your child may have a confused idea of death, based on cartoon shows or other influences. Or he or she may surprise you with a very perceptive answer. From your child’s answer you can determine how much to explain, and how to do it. Use a simple and straightforward explanation, and your child will more fully understand what has happened and that the feelings of grief are normal and natural.
Ask questions to get feedback from your child. “Max was sick, and he died. Do you know what death is?” You can also use a statement like the following to reassure your child that his or her feelings are natural and you are there to help: “I know you hurt and miss Max, but I want you to know that I understand your feelings and will help you if you have questions.” Work on your child’s level by gauging what upsets him or her regarding the pet’s death.
The response to pet loss differs from child to child, depending upon age and intellectual development. Your child’s grief may range from seemingly nonexistent to severe, and parents can be shocked by an unexpected response. In all cases, death needs to be explained with reassurance – not as something bad or to be feared. Acknowledge to your child that death can be extremely upsetting, and that his or her response is natural.
It is helpful to share your positive religious views and spirituality with your child. It is a topic that can make the discussion easier and give your child a feeling of further support. It helps to talk about nature’s changing seasons, how the earth is reborn in the spring, thrives in summer and fall and “dies” in winter. It can be a great example of how birth, death, and rebirth are part of the cycle of life. Use ideology your child is capable of understanding and will find comforting.
I see nothing wrong with telling children that their pet is “with God/Goddess,” or “living with angels.” Once you have explained death and afterlife, it is common for children to wonder precisely where their pet is, and with whom.
Your child must benefit from your example. You are the primary role model. Treat his or her grief seriously and share your feelings. Take care, proceed gently, and answer your child’s questions as best you can. Your discussions of pet loss and death with your child may help him or her cope better with a human loved one’s death in the future.
Where is my pet now?
Children ask many questions about where the pet has gone, whether the pet is happy being dead, whether God or Goddess takes care of the pet now and – for me, the most difficult question – “Will I ever see my pet again?” You must assess exactly what your child means by a question to provide proper guidance. When a young child asks this last question, he or she is usually referring to this life. Answering “I don’t know” leaves your child feeling lost and confused. While you honestly may not know, you need to try to provide answers that will satisfy the origin of the question and ease your child’s mind.
There are times when your child may ask another adult the same questions and acquire different answers. If this should happen, you can explain that many people have different beliefs about death and the afterlife, and that you have told your child what you believe to be correct. We all may have different beliefs, but we can agree that death is not an end, but a transition.
It is best to inform other family members and friends of what you have told your child regarding death and grief. Other adults mean no harm but may provide unsuitable answers, not knowing how best to respond.
Certain explanations are commonly misinterpreted by children and should be avoided. Some of these are: your pet got sick and died (without further explanation, or if untrue), your pet went to sleep forever, your pet ran away from home (if untrue), the gods loved your pet so much that they wanted him or her back, your pet wanted to be free and wild, and many more. I am sure you can understand the negative results of these answers and why they should not be used.
The child whose pet simply “got sick and died” may worry that everyone close to him or her who falls ill is likely to die. This can create a phobia. You need to explain further.
Being told, “Your pet went to sleep” means to your child that sleeping can result in death. A phobia can result.
Children can become suspicious if you tell them untruthfully that their pet ran away. Your child will either realize you are being dishonest, or wait in agony for the pet to return. This creates feelings of exclusion, betrayal and worry.
Telling your child that the gods wanted the pet back causes the child to wonder why he or she has not been taken back as well, or to worry that he or she, or loved ones, will be suddenly snatched away.
Another common answer is that your child’s pet had to be put to sleep because of illness or injury. This prompts questions of how, when and why. Your child may begin to fear doctors and medical procedures. Imagine an anesthesiologist lifting a gas mask to your child’s face and saying, “Now you’ll sleep for a time.”
Children understand things literally.
Don’t shy away from crying and grieving if you suddenly feel tears coming on. Children need to be sensitized to other people’s emotions.
Your child will trust you even more when you confirm that what they feel is real, and pay attention to their confusion and pain. For the rest of your child’s life, your relationship will benefit from your gentle guidance at this sensitive time.
Helping them cope
Julia Harris suggests several ways to help kids through the bereavement process:
1. Stimulate joyful reminiscing through photographs.
2. Encourage your child to write a letter to your pet.
3. Make a memorial shelf or sanctuary.
4. Visit your local library and look for children’s books on death.
5. Phone your vet and ask him or her to speak to your child.
6. Have a funeral or burial ceremony.
7. Share your pet’s passing with your child’s teacher. He or she can watch for signs of distress in your child and may even teach a lesson on pet loss in class.
Excerpted with permission from the book Pet Loss, A Spiritual Guide, written by Julia Harris, published by Lantern Books, New York.