The loss of a pet is traumatic for the whole family, but it can be an especially sad and confusing time for children. Parents want to help their child cope with pet loss, but how do you deal with what may be your child’s first experience with death?
“Be honest with your child about your own feeling of sadness,” says Cōlleen O’Brien, LMSW. As the founder of Blue Dog Counseling, O’Brien created the Pet Loss and Support Group for the Humane Society of Huron Valley and supports families when their beloved pet dies.
“When we let children see our grief, that makes it easier for them to express their own feelings of loss,” she says.
O’Brien notes that many parents believe talking about specific aspects of the pet’s death will upset kids. She encourages parents to resist the temptation to supply “softball” answers or refuse to answer specific questions because they fear it may upset their child. “Asking questions means that kids do want to talk about it. It’s a sign that they need comfort,” she says.
When an 11-year-old boy was concerned that his dog’s eyes remained open after euthanasia and wanted to know why, O’Brien says she provided honest answers.
“I answered him in simple, scientific terms,” she says. “Later, his mom called to tell me that her son seemed to be feeling a lot better.” O’Brien believes that demystifying the process helps rather than hurts children cope with the grief of pet loss.
What not to say
Using euphemisms like “put to sleep” can cause distress because depending on their age and level of development, kids will take this at face value. “Everybody sleeps,” says O’Brien. “Children may fear that they won’t wake up when they go to sleep, or their parents won’t.”
Instead, tell your child that their pet “walked over the rainbow bridge,” or that they are now “in heaven.” This strategy helps children understand that the pet has made a transition, and it leads to less confusion.
By the same token, saying “dead” or “died” is clear and won’t confuse your child. “As a society, we are afraid of the word ‘dead’ but sometimes that is the easiest explanation,” O’Brien says.
Tailor the message to your child’s age
Your child’s age and level of development are going to dictate how you speak to them about the death of a pet. For children 5 and younger, O’Brien acknowledges that they may experience either inaccurate or “magical thinking.”
This can take the form of blaming something unrelated for the pet’s death. Your child might say something similar to, “We shouldn’t have left him at grandma’s house,” or they may even have continued questions about where the pet is and why they can’t have them back. Be calm and comforting and keep explanations simple.
Six to 9-year-olds have a better understanding of the situation than their younger peers, but at this stage of development, awareness that “everybody dies” can cause stress and fear. Offer this age group plenty of reassurance and stay open to their questions.
Kids 10 and older understand death, but they may experience feelings of blame that you may need to address. Older kids may also have spiritual or philosophical questions, such as “What happens when you die?” This is an opportunity for parents to address these larger concepts according to personal family beliefs.
All ages will benefit from celebrating their pet’s life in some way, whether it is having the child draw a picture, displaying a special photo of the pet, holding a family memorial or even keeping items like a pet bowl.
“Storytelling is especially healing,” says O’Brien. Encourage your child to share fun stories about their pet.
Children recover from loss much faster than adults, so don’t be surprised if your child seems to move on quickly. On the flip side, if a child is experiencing extreme difficulties after two weeks, such as unusual clinginess, regressive behaviors or other signs of distress, this is an indication that the child may need additional help.
“Nearly every child will be affected by a pet death,” acknowledges O’Brien. “Whether it’s a family dog or the classroom bunny, parents should be prepared to address this with their child so that when the time comes, they’re ready.”
Learn more about the Humane Society of Huron Valley. Visit hshv.org.
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