Keeping pets when you have children is a great idea. Caring for a pet teaches responsibility, and having an animal in the house helps kids build empathy and gives them someone to love beyond their parents and siblings. There’s even some evidence that having a dog might reduce anxiety and stress for kids.
But pets, from goldfish to birds to furred friends, don’t live forever. At some point, it is likely that you and your child will need to have a conversation about the death of a pet. It can be difficult to know what to say or how to act during a time when you are probably grief-stricken yourself.
DO: Keep Explanations Simple And Age Appropriate
Depending on your child’s age, it’s okay to keep explanations as simple as possible. For preschoolers, many parents like to focus on how the pet got very old, and their bodies stopped working. Avoid saying things like “We took Sparky to the vet, and now he’s gone,” which can cause kids to connect the doctor with dying. Older children might be able to hear about the pet’s diagnosis, and understand why treatment options weren’t possible.
If your family believes in an afterlife for animals, sharing that with your kids may ease their sadness to some degree.
DON’T: Lie Or Say The Pet Has Gone “To The Farm” Or “Run Away”
Whatever you do, don’t lie to your children. Their beloved dog or cat hasn’t gone to a farm or run off; they’ve died. All kids eventually realize that their parents have lied to them about this detail – remember that sad, but hilarious, episode of Friends? – and it breaks trust with their parents so much that it’s never worth it.
DO: Discuss Ways To Remember Your Pet
Your child many be afraid that they will forget their beloved pet. To help them manage that fear, discuss ways to keep their friend in their memory. They could draw a picture of themselves playing with their pet, make a scrapbook of pictures, or get a clay paw-print from the vet before the animal is cremated. Some companies even have the ability to turn your pet’s ashes into diamonds that can be set in jewelry.
DON’T: Discourage Your Child From Discussing The Pet
Because you are probably managing your own grief as well, you might want to keep your child from talking about their pet or their sadness. Don’t. Your child has to process their grief in their own individual way. Often, kids take longer to work through their feelings than adults, and you may find that they start talking about the animal weeks or months after the passing. Honor their feelings and manage your own sadness privately, or with other adults.
DO: Prep Other Adults About The Loss
If your child is in school, a class at church, or plays a sport, letting the adults in charge know that your child is grieving over a pet serves two purposes. First, the adults will know to be on the lookout for sadness or depression in your child, and may be better able to support them through their feelings. Second, children don’t always have the same understanding of social situations as the adults in their lives. Teachers in particular should know about the death of a pet before your child shares it during circle time.
DON’T: Be Afraid To Share Your Grief With Your Child
It might feel like you have to be strong for your child, and generally it is inappropriate to expect your child to help you manage their feelings. It’s okay for your child to see you cry, however, and know that you’re also feeling pain at the loss of this member of your family. Crying with your child, sharing stories of funny or happy times you had with your pet, or talking together about the best ways to remember the animal are all good ways you can share your grief with your child, and in doing so, help them process their own feelings about the loss.
Losing a pet is an incredibly tumultuous time for a family. It can be hard to know what to do. Rush out and adopt another kitten, decide never to have another dog again, or take some time to see what feels right? It is okay for your family to take time to grieve your loss together, understand how you feel, and determine the best way to move forward.
If your child seems disproportionately sad, it’s often a good idea to make an appointment for them to see a therapist. A good therapist will be able to help them get some strategies to help identify and manage their feelings.
What have you done to help your children manage grief over a pet’s loss?