Loss of a family pet may be your child’s first experience with death and the concept of mortality. How you respond and support your child can help ease their grieving process. Though we as parents find it difficult to watch our children suffer, it is vitally important to always be honest and forthright with children about a pet’s death or impending death. Preparing a child for the impending death of a sick or old pet is better for their well-being.
Asking questions of your child is an important first step. It is impossible to know how your child feels about death without asking for their input. When your child asks you questions, be open and honest. Make it simple. Don’t feel the need to over explain or inundate them with lots of unnecessary details. Be sure your child understands that death is permanent and final. Never use the phrase “going to sleep.” Doing so could cause your child to be afraid of going to bed at night.
Anticipatory death occurs when a family pet is ailing or nearing the end of their life. Explore emotions associated with grief before your pet’s death. Normalize feelings associated with grieving and model appropriate behavior. If you are feeling sad, it is entirely appropriate to be sad in front of your child. Talk to your child about their thoughts on death. Be prepared that in all likelihood, their understanding of death may be quite different than yours.
Don’t expect your child’s grieving to mirror yours. Children generally have the ability to verbalize feelings of sadness, anger and fear associated with grief. It is important to explore these feelings with your child prior to a pet’s death. Ask him what he thinks he will feel upon the death of a pet. Share stories of when you experienced these feelings with your child. The goal of these conversations is to normalize grief. Doing so will allow you to model appropriate responses to hard emotions.
Look to nature for teachable moments. Brenda Brown, a grief specialist and founder of Grief About Pets suggests parents look to nature for teachable moments. Everything in our environment eventually dies. Bugs, wildlife, plants, and trees die all the time. “It starts with nature. They’re already seeing death everywhere,” says Ms. Brown. She suggests calling your child’s attention to this fact. A good tool, according to Ms. Brown, is nature documentaries which focus on predatory/prey relationships. Though sometimes disturbing, they are natural and true. Kids can see that. Because every child’s cognitive abilities vary at different ages, it falls to a parent to determine when a child is ready. Typically, children are able to begin to comprehend and understand death at age three. Simply begin the conversation after viewing a nature documentary. Be honest and acknowledge an animal died then ask your child, “What do you think happened?”
Losing a beloved family pet is hard. Experiencing the grief from this loss is difficult for everyone. For a child, it can be made more difficult due to lack of understanding or access to language to express sadness and grief. Preparing your child for the imminent loss of a beloved family pet will not only be of tremendous benefit to her, doing so will help your entire family grieve in a healthy, more meaningful way.