Losing a pet is hard. We become as attached to our four-legged family members, as we do to our human ones. The feelings of grief and loss are just as real and painful as when a human family member dies.
It’s no wonder that we grieve for our pets. It doesn’t matter if they are a dog, cat, bird, rabbit, or something more exotic. They are such a big part of our lives. They are with us every day. We care for them, we help them when they are sick, we make DIY toys for them, we exercise with them, and, of course, we snuggle with them.
This grieving process can be made so much harder if we have children. They won’t always fully understand what is happening. Or they will not know how to handle their emotions.
Learning how to talk to our children about the loss of their pet can make a big difference between them processing and coping with their bereavement or them feeling scared and alone.
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Feeling Their Pain
There are so many reasons a pet might pass away. Maybe they got sick, ran away and got injured, or they just got old? It doesn’t matter the cause, it still hurts us deeply.
It was nearly two years ago that our dog, Josie, passed away. She suddenly became very ill and her health deteriorated very quickly. Her last few weeks were full of pain and suffering, so I made the difficult choice to have her euthanized.
Of course, I was devastated. We had adopted Josie 10 years earlier and she was an important member of our family. But to make it even harder, I had to explain the loss to my children too.
At the time they were aged 6, 8, and 10 years old. The pain and grieving lasted for many months and even 2 years later, I will often find my daughter in tears.
To make matters worse, just a few months later we lost our other dog, Strider, to old age. His death was very sudden and he died peacefully in his sleep.
Having these two experiences of death so close together was very hard on my children. I turned to the internet for ideas on how to help them cope with their loss.
Below is a wonderful guest post by Jon from CPC Cares, a Pet Cremation Service in Cambridge, England. Every day he sees the grief that families go through when they lose a beloved dog or cat. He has written this post for me to give us all advice on how to help our children deal with the death of a pet.
Losing a Pet
Learning about death and dying is, unfortunately, a fact of life. It is one of the hardest lessons that we all need to learn.
Often it is the passing of a family pet that is the first encounter that children have with death. How we deal with this experience can have far-reaching implications.
Death Shouldn’t be a Taboo Subject
For many people talking about death and dying is difficult. Whilst it is a totally natural process, it makes us uncomfortable. Which in turn makes us want to insulate those closest to us from the experience. So how should we approach the subject?
Tell the Truth About Pet Loss
It can be tempting to protect our kids after losing a pet and try to “softening the blow” by making-up euphemisms. However, it is important to be truthful.
Consequently, letting children know that their pet has died and won’t be coming back is the best course of action.
So please don’t make-up stories like:
- Chichi went to the Milner’s farm with horses and rabbits that he can chase
- Fido has gone to sleep and won’t be waking up.
Once your child finds out the truth it raises the question; what other lies has he been told? And you don’t want your child being scared of going to sleep thinking that she may not wake up.
Keep the Language Age-Appropriate
Parents know their children better than anyone else, therefore, it is best that any conversations on death and bereavement happen between parent and child.
You will know when your child understands and whether you need to go into more detail. For example, why do animals die? Could be explained by saying that their pet’s body has worn out.
Parents are best placed to know whether they need to go into more detail – like this happens to all living creatures including you and me.
How do Children of Different Ages React to Death?
Very young children will respond to the emotions around them and will pick-up the feelings of grief from family members.
Two to Five Year Olds
It’s when they are between 2 to 5 years that children will start to miss their playmate after losing a pet.
However, they are more likely to view death as an impermanent state. You may notice that behaviors that they have grown out of return, such as thumb sucking.
Five to Nine Year Olds
Honesty is particularly important with children aged between five to nine. This is the stage when they begin to understand that death is permanent.
However, they may believe that death can be bargained with. They may also wrongly believe that they can influence what happens.
We have heard of children that believe they caused their pet’s death because they were (fleetingly) resentful of looking after him and wished he would die.
Ten Year Old and Up
As children get older they begin to understand that death affects all living creatures and is irreversible. It’s at this point that children are more likely to display the typical emotions that bereaved adults feel; such as shock, anger, and denial.
It’s important that they are allowed to express these emotions so that they can move through the bereavement process and come to terms with the death of their pet.
Creating a pet memorial can help older children come to terms with their loss and helps acknowledge the emotions the child is feeling.
Do’s and Don’ts of Pet Loss and Children
Some simple do’s and don’ts when talking to children after losing a pet.
- Tell the truth about what happened to their pet
- Be prepared for a variety of emotional responses
- Use honest open language – use the words dead or died
- Share information in bite sized pieces
- Be confident enough to say “I don’t know”
- Show your emotions
- Involve your child in making decisions
- Share memories of your departed pet
- Allow your child to grieve
- Allow yourself to grieve
- Don’t hide your grief from your child
- Don’t distance yourself from your child
- Don’t change the subject when your child comes into the room
- Don’t favorite your daily routine
- Don’t be afraid to laugh
- Don’t force a time limit on you or your child’s grief
Practical Steps You Can Take
There are practical steps that you can take together that will help both of you to work through your grief. These will help your child cope with the loss of their pet and express their grief.
Speak to Your Vet
If your pet is going to be euthanased discuss with your vet whether it is appropriate for your child to attend. Some vets are more than happy to accommodate your wishes and will help you to explain the process involved.
Involve Your Child in Saying Farewell
Pet cremation is an increasingly popular option for a pet’s final journey. Most pet crematoria now offer a range of services in addition to pet cremation aimed at helping owners and their family with the death of their pet. For example:
- Books of remembrance; you or your child can write a letter, draw pictures or paste photos of your departed pet onto the page to create a tribute.
- Create an online pet tribute and share this for social media.
- Scatter your pet’s ashes in a favorite spot
- Place a pet memorial in your garden
- Getting a portrait done of your pet
It may not seem like it now, but grief is a process that you and your family will experience after losing a pet. Whilst it will affect us all differently, in normal circumstances, it has a beginning and an end.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel and you can expect you and those close to you to get to a point where the happy memories of time spent with your departed pet are stronger than the feelings of loss.