Losing a pet was, for many of us, our first experience of death. So we know how much it hurts. We look at practical tips for helping your children to deal with the grief that comes from the death of a much loved pet.
Our pets are likely family for most of us. And the death of one affects many of us in much the same way as losing any other member of our family might. The death of a pet happens to over 40% of us and this can be particularly pronounced for children suffering the loss of a pet.
The death of a pet is, for many youngsters, their first experience of death at all. So how can you help them through this tricky time?
Be Honest and Direct When Talking About it
In some cases you may know the pet is going to die. For example, your pet may need to be put down. In this case, if your child is of an appropriate age, it is potentially worth discussing it with them beforehand and telling them why.
Direct language is much less confusing for children. So instead of saying “Benjie is going to go to sleep,” be direct and say “Benjie’s going to get an injection from the vet and it will make him fall asleep and then die. It won’t hurt him and he will be very comfortable.”
It’s important that children know this is a permanent state and don’t have any confusion over the terminology.
Tell them why – explain that the pet is sick or is suffering.
If the death of a pet is sudden, then you can explain afterwards what happened. Sometimes we soften the language around death, but with children of an age who take everything literally, the use of very factual language is important.
Be Open with Your Emotions and Encourage the Same of Them
Death is upsetting. And we don’t want children suppressing their emotions. They look to you as an example when it comes to emotions. If they see you “toughing it out” there’s a risk they expect to have to do the same.
Talk to them about your feelings. Explain that it makes you sad and explain that the death of anyone is a very sad part of life.
Encourage them to talk about it openly and make a space for them to be upset.
There’s no timeline on when grief passes. Some children may feel much better in days, others might not feel better for many months.
Patience is the key here. You can’t rush along the process.
Decide Together on a Ceremony or Other Memorial
Sometimes, a burial or memorial ceremony of some kind can offer up closure. But for some children, less so. Ask your children what they would like to do to remember their pet or mark their passing. Perhaps you could have a grave of sorts that the children can visit. Or perhaps you could make a memorial of photos and memories or even a scrapbook.
Don’t Rush Into a New Pet – But Decide Together When The Time is Right
It’s important to allow enough time to pass between the passing of a pet and getting a new one that nobody feels as though the new pet is a replacement.
So do give it some time. But when it starts to feel as though the right time may be approaching, have a conversation with your child again. Be direct, give them the choice and be clear that the pet isn’t a replacement.
Perhaps something along these lines:
“I know we all still miss Benjie terribly and no other dog could ever replace him. But I know how much we all loved having a dog around the house and I wondered how you might feel about giving a home to another dog? He would never replace Benjie, of course. But if you think you’d like dog in your life, maybe we could talk about when and start looking around?”
Keep Talking and Sharing Memories
Many years after the death of a pet we all remember them. Keeping talking about your pet, sharing photos and memories. And don’t be surprised if, from time to time, even many years later, your child still feels upset from time to time.
Grief is a different experience for everyone.