Losing a family pet is always going to be difficult. Even when you’ve had time to prepare following a long illness, it can be truly devastating. Imagine how much worse it can be for children. Our kids also tend to develop even stronger bonds with their animal companions; one study found that children tend to get more out of their relationships with pets than they do their siblings. Which is why we must give some extra focus on kids when the family pet passes away.
The good news is that children can also be remarkably resilient. By taking a careful, considerate approach to the death of our furry family members, you can give your children the right tools to cope. Let’s examine a few primary areas for your attention.
There’s a popular trope in which parents replace their child’s deceased hamster without them knowing, or make an excuse that their dog has simply gone to live on a nice farm up-state. You might feel as though these small deceptions are to save your child from hurting, but they are not a positive strategy to employ.
Apart from anything else, kids can be more astute than we give them credit for. They’re curious, and they will ask questions; your dishonesty will generally only serve to make an already upsetting situation more confusing. Approach the situation gently, but be honest with them. Be age appropriate in the details you provide, but don’t attempt to hide the fact that their pet has passed away. This puts them on the right path toward grieving in a healthy way.
Help them to Understand
Death is a big subject for children to handle. Without giving them the keys to understand what has happened to their pet, they’ll be left with unresolved issues that they may struggle with for years to come. Studies show that children tend to grasp aspects of death in stages. Until the age of 4 they often won’t understand that the situation is irreversible, and between 5 and 7 they start to come to grips with the mechanics of it — that dead people can’t do what the living do.
Bear this in mind when talking to them about the death of the family pet. Be patient with them about concepts that you as an adult consider to be simple facts of life. Children are also incredibly curious, so invite them to ask as many questions as they need to. In the case of a long illness, it can also be helpful to take your child along to vet’s appointments, so they can learn about what is happening, and why.
Keep them Involved
So much of what we do following a death seems designed to protect our children from the sad reality. However, this often only succeeds in making them feel excluded and alone. It’s more healthy to find positive ways to keep your child involved after the family pet passes away.
Perhaps the best role children can play is in arranging a funeral or memorial. Invite them to help make important decisions. Let them take responsibility for choosing pet urns, and selecting photographs or favourite chew toys to put on display to celebrate their furry sibling’s life. Encourage them to get creative and produce a eulogy or some poetry to be read during a family ceremony. Make them directors of your meaningful and unique funeral process.
We all deal with grief in different ways. However, it’s rarely healthy to keep everything bottled up inside. Children often take their cues for how to react to new situations from their parents. If you’re keeping silent and refusing to talk about your feelings, they’ll get the impression that this is how the passing of the family pet should be dealt with.
Prompt them to be open about how they’re feeling. Share your own emotions with them, and demonstrate that it’s natural to feel and express pain when a beloved pet dies. Don’t just focus on the negative aspects of the situation with them though. Tell them what you miss about your companion, and have them share their favorite memories of their time together.
The loss of the family pet is likely to be one of the most difficult experiences of your child’s formative years. By encouraging honesty and communication, sharing experiences together, and keeping them a part of the process, you can help ease their pain and confusion.