To a child, a pet is more than an animal. A pet is a child’s best friend and confidant. Children often consider pets their “secret-keepers” and playmates. Thinking back, there is one commercial for Iams dog food that I feel is especially poignant. The advertisement features a seemingly big, tough dog that is graciously allowing his young friend to dress him up in frilly clothes—bearing the treatment, I might add, in a noble way. This commercial is a perfect representation of what the relationship between a pet and their smallest companions can be. With this in mind, explaining the death of a beloved pet to a child can be just as difficult as explaining the death of a relative.
To begin with, much depends on how the pet dies. If the animal has been terminally ill and has to be euthanized, the method of communicating the pet’s death is different than if the animal dies suddenly, or goes missing. Realize that the phrase “putting the animal to sleep,” which is usually associated with euthanasia, can be confusing to children. A child can become confused as they apply this phrase to their everyday life and might begin to associate going to sleep with never waking up.
Communication is Key
Adults are often amazed at how well children cope with honesty. Speaking in terms that sensitively but truthfully explain the situation is the best way to convey the death of a pet to a child. Simply telling a child that their pet “went away” does not offer any details. Older children will especially ask why and want more information. Realize though that the decision of whether or not to include a child at the actual euthanasia is a sensitive one and can be troubling to children with developing minds.
Typically, any child under the age five has a harder time understanding the concept of death. Parents should consider how mature their child is, and how well they understand that their pet is not going to get better. Telling children that the veterinarian did all they could to save the animal and that this is the kindest way to take the pet’s pain away are helpful things to say.
If a pet dies suddenly, parents should calmly explain what has happened. Allowing their child to ask most of the questions and guide the conversation is beneficial. While adults may deal with death and grief differently than a child, it is something everyone experiences. Parents can draw from their own understanding of death. Simply reassure your children that their pet is no longer in any pain.
How to Deal with Grief
Grief is an individual journey, and every family and child copes differently. Getting your child involved with the memorial planning as much as possible helps them deal with the emotions that they are feeling. Encourage them to draw pictures of their pet which can be used during the funeral or memorial service. Also, asking them to recount happy or funny stories of their furry friend can assist in making sure they feel involved in the process.
Children that do not have a creative outlet for their grief can sometimes display their emotions more negatively. Some warning signs to look out for are disinterest in usual activities, reoccurring bad dreams, preoccupation with thoughts of death, eating substantially less than normal, or withdrawing from friends and family.
At the same time, parents should allow the mourning process to progress naturally in their children—and know that there is not any “standard” length of time in dealing with grief. Parents should never disregard the significance of the bond between a child and their pet. Belittling their emotions or saying, “Princess was just a cat, we can get a new one tomorrow,” does not address the sadness a child is feeling. A memorial service or funeral, no matter how small, provides closure. It lets children say goodbye in their own special way.
There are also other considerations to make. For instance, many people believe that if an animal is getting older or is terminally ill, that it is good to introduce a new puppy or kitten to the home. Realize that sometimes this can provide companionship to an ailing pet, but it also can distract attention and care away from a pet that is in their golden years. However, if an animal dies suddenly, getting a new pet right away might seem like the family is trying to replace the lost pet. Children should be allowed to deal with their grief appropriately and parents should wait to get a new pet until the time feels right.