In many homes, pets are like members of the family, offering kids their first glimpses of real responsibility while also enabling them to forge unbreakable bonds. Unfortunately, though, pets have a relatively short life span compared to their human counterparts, which also means that their existence sometimes provides a child’s first experience with death and dying.
Dealing with the loss of a pet isn’t easy for anyone in the family, especially kids. But here are four ways to help them cope with the tragedy in a way that is healthy and that also enables them to open their hearts to another furry friend.
1. Be honest.
It may seem like telling your daughter that her pet Chihuahua “went to sleep” will protect her feelings and make the loss easier to handle, but it actually does more harm than good. “Kids can be very literal and develop misconceptions about people going to sleep and not waking up,” says Jennifer Chung, a parenting expert and co-founder of Kinsights.com. If the pet was in an accident, for example, she says to tell kids that “The vet did everything he could,” that “Due to his injuries, the pet would only suffer if he were kept alive” and that “Letting him go was the kindest thing that could be done for him.”
Wendy Toth, editor-in-chief of Pet360.com, agrees. “You think that the child will envision the deceased pet curled up on a fluffy pillow in heaven. In reality, what they imagine is that they themselves may go to sleep at night and never wake up again. Or they may confuse the term with a general anesthetic at the hospital where you go to sleep for an operation. As difficult as it may be for you, tell your child simply that their pet has died.”
With older pets, Chung says that parents can help their kids by preparing them in advance for what is to come. “Plant the seed that older pets will eventually die,” she says. “If the animal is suffering, consider putting together a plan for euthanasia. Managing how the pet dies can be comforting for kids. Use words like ‘death’ and ‘dying,’ and walk them through the process: The vet will give him a shot; he will go to sleep; his heart will stop beating.”
2. Give age-appropriate explanations.
At some point, kids will want to know exactly how their beloved pet died, and at that point, it’s important to consider the child’s age and ability to process certain information, says Chung.
“Two- to 3-year-olds don’t have a lot of life experience to draw on to fully understand death,” she explains. “Keep it simple. Tell them the pet died and won’t be coming home and reassure them it wasn’t their fault. Four- to 6-year-olds usually understand the concept of death, but may not totally grasp its permanence. They may feel that past anger toward the pet was responsible, so it’s important to tell them how the pet died. Seven- to 9-year-olds understand that death is irreversible. They are curious and may ask questions that appear morbid. These types of questions are normal and should be addressed honestly. Ten- and 11-year-olds understand the circle of life and death is a natural process. They usually exhibit their grief in ways they have seen their parents deal with it in the past.”
Ultimately, regardless of age and the amount of detail given, communication is vital to help children get through this difficult time. “Tell your children about the loss in a private place where they feel safe to express emotions, and let them ask questions,” says Chung.
Some questions, says Candi Wingate, president of Care4Hire, may be too difficult to answer immediately. And if that’s the case, be honest about it. “If practical, you can promise to research the question and get an answer for them within a period of time that you specify,” she says. “Some answers may be impossible to ascertain, however. For example, if your kids ask you why bad things happen to good people or pets, the answer may not be clear cut, even with reasonable research into the matter. You can tell your kids that no one knows the answer with certainty, and then give them your perspective.”
3. Be extra attentive.
Even after the initial shock has worn off, the total time it takes for a child to recover from pet loss may be a while, and parents should be especially attentive during that time, says Wingate. “Expect that your kids may act out their grief by throwing tantrums, having trouble concentrating in school, having trouble understanding and remembering things, wetting their beds when they have already mastered waking up dry, having difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, experiencing lethargy and/or loss of appetite, and other signs of distress.”
Her solution for parents is to simply sit with their child and follow his lead regarding what he needs, whether that’s asking more questions, cuddling or just sitting in silence. It also helps to allow the child to remember their pet in ways that make them feel comfortable, like making a scrapbook or even holding a memorial service for the family to attend.
4. When the time is right, move on
Some parents may want to bring a new pet into the home to help ease the sadness of a child, but, first, it is important to make sure that the grieving process for the previous pet has been completed, says Chung. “The time will be right when you feel like your family can look forward to building a new relationship with a pet and not look back at the relationship you had,” she says.
And once the time is right, Chung offers a few do’s and don’ts to ensure that old, sad memories stay in the past, and that your child is moving happily into the future with a new friend:
- Don’t think of the new pet as a “replacement” for your previous pet. Think of him as a new pet you will build a relationship with.
- Do involve the entire family when choosing the new pet. Be sure everyone is ready to take on the responsibility. Take into consideration other pets in the family and if they are ready to welcome a new member into the home.
- Don’t get a lookalike pet. Try a different sex, breed or one who has different markings. Having a pet that looks similar may set the expectation that he will have the same personality.