It’s hard enough for us to cope, imagine explaining the loss of a pet to children.
Sadly it’s one of those things in life that are inevitable. Of course it’s to be dreaded, but if handled properly, it will serve as an important lesson in loss, love, life and compassion.
The bond between them
Do your pets greet the kids at the door when they come home? Do they serve as a confidant, the first one your child talks to? Are they best friends, a support to help them feel less alone in the world?
It is a bond that people who don’t have the pleasure of sharing their lives with animals, can never possibly understand. Yet it is an important one.
What you should not do
It’s a natural instinct to want to shelter your kids from the bad in the world, but you won’t be doing them any favours in this case.
Please do not lie and say the dog/cat/rabbit… ran away, or got lost. First of all it’s the wrong thing to do, and why would you allow your child to worry, wondering if he’s okay, and hope he’ll find his way home one day?
How to share the news
If your pet is old, or has an illness that he won’t recover from, you will be able to explain what’s going on, over time. They will see the animal isn’t well, be aware of your trips to the vet, medication etc… so will have time to understand and absorb.
It is an opportunity to teach your child proper care of animals, and compassion for others. Explain the importance of preventing suffering, that everything possible has been done to help, and when the time comes the vet will give him a quick injection that won’t hurt, the pet will not be scared or in pain, and he will die peacefully.
Be careful of the words you use. It’s okay to say things like “died” “death” so they understand what that means, but using words like “put to sleep” or “going to sleep” are not a good idea. They associate those words with bedtime, and can scare and confuse them. Call it what it is.
How much to share
You know your children, and their age and ability to cope will determine how the detail you go into, and the words you use to explain what’s going on. Answer their questions, don’t ignore them.
What if your pet dies suddenly?
If something drastic happened, and you had no time to prepare yourself, never mind the kids, briefly and calmly explain what happened. Let their questions guide the conversation.
Where do pets go when they die?
I don’t know whether or not you’ve ever broached the subject of death with your kids, but that’s a tough one for any of us to answer. You could talk about your own belief or understanding of death, what your faith says about it, or give an honest “I don’t know” because none of us know for sure.
Helping them cope with the loss of a pet
We all feel a range of emotions when experiencing loss, and they will as well. Loneliness because their friend is gone, anger, guilt because they didn’t always take care of their pet like they said they would.
Encourage your children to express their feelings, and share yours as well. It helps to know you’re feeling the same. If they don’t want to talk right now that’s okay, but don’t let them keep their feelings bottled up for long, and be sure they know when they’re ready you’ll be there to listen.
Helping your child heal
You’re keeping the lines of communication open, and encouraging your kids to share their feelings. What else can you do to help?
Your children may want to have a funeral. It’s a chance for them to say goodbye and do something special. There are pet cemeteries if you prefer, or a backyard burial means they’re still close.
If your pet will be cremated, perhaps they’d like to help you pick the urn.
How about a scrapbook full of pictures, funny stories… Go shopping with your kids to pick out a special book, coloured paper, stickers, markers… Even if they already have everything at home, they may want things they pick out specifically for this occasion.
Other ideas include planting a tree or bush, buying a paving stone with your pet’s name on it, a picture frame with the pet’s name and picture, or buying some supplies for the local shelter. Explain how this will be helping lots of other animals that are waiting for a home feel so much better.
You may be ready to adopt another pet rather quickly, but hold off for a bit. Your kids may not be ready for such a big step, and they may get angry, feeling theirs wasn’t important and so easily replaced.
Hopefully you will be able to give another animal a home, when everyone is ready. The priority is helping your kids understand what has happened, grieve, accept, and be happy with the memories.
Explaining the loss of a pet to children – conclusion
Not an easy conversation to have with grownups, never mind kids, but necessary nonetheless.
Be honest about what happened, let their questions guide you, help them understand what a kind and compassionate thing you all did, and how it’s okay to be sad because they were lucky enough to love someone so much.
Explaining the loss of a pet to children isn’t easy, but see it as an opportunity to teach them about loss, love, compassion and the joy that comes with sharing their lives with animals.