Death of a Pet

How to tell your child

In many homes, pets are not simply animals cohabiting, they are part of the family. Their presence is as important as that of any other family member and they are quite often treated as fellow humans. Some children see their pet as a best friend. Unfortunately, for the most part, pets don’t have the life span that the rest of the family.

The joy of owning pets often comes with the knowing that one day, heartbreak will come. A missing pet or a pet passing away from illness or trauma can be a very sad time for the whole family. In some cases, children may not be old enough to process the concept of death and may struggle to understand why their beloved pet is no longer with them.

The death of a pet can be a very difficult time. Your beloved pet may no longer greet your child when they arrive home from school or play with and entertain your child for hours on end. Some children seek comfort in their pets and that can present a particularly challenging scenario when their pet is no longer around to provide that emotional support.

It is important to protect your child from the feelings that they will be experiencing following the loss of a beloved pet but it is impossible to avoid the situation. There are ways that you can help them to cope and understand while still allowing them to grieve. For some children, the death of a pet may be the first encounter of death and loss. This can be challenging for parents as it can often happen suddenly with little time to prepare. How you will help your children through such a difficult time?

Breaking the bad news

Telling your child about the death of their pet can be a challenging moment in parenting. Timing is important and you may wish to think about how, where and when to tell your child. It may not be appropriate to do so immediately. Consider a place in the home where your child feels safe and secure, a time of day when there are no other significant issues to contend with and consider how you will break the news, offering support and lots of emotional availability as a parent, can help your child to cope with the bad news.

Your approach should be appropriate to your child’s age. Try to gauge how much information your child is likely to cope with. If they ask for more information, consider your response carefully before offering it. Your child may be too young to grasp the concept of death and they may become worried that death is imminent for others at any moment. It is a tough issue to broach but your child’s level of maturity and past experience of death, if any, should guide you to finding the best way to discuss the issue.

If your pet is getting on in years or perhaps they are unwell and death is a possibility whether naturally or through euthanasia, you can use the opportunity to talk to your children before the event takes place. If you have to go down the route of euthanasia, consider the following before you start your conversation, you may want to add that:

✔ the vet has done everything possible to save your pet and make them comfortable

✔ your pet would not be getting better and they would be in a lot of discomfort if they continued to live as they were

✔ this approach is the kindest and most pain free way to help your pet rest in peace

✔ the pet will die peacefully knowing that they are love and not alone

The above goes back to your child’s level of maturity and whether or not you can communicate these points in an age appropriate way. Using words like ‘death’ or ‘dying’ is fine as it is a realistic part of life. They will encounter this again and again throughout their lives, possibly in childhood and then into their teens and adult lives. This can help them to learn gain their own coping strategies over time.

If you are able to find an approach that resonates with your child, an explanation or description that communicates the facts but also brings in your own religious, spiritual or life views to back up or support your conversation, you will be giving your child the best opportunity to come to terms with their loss and understand why death is part of our normal life cycle.

A lot of children would want the opportunity to say goodbye and spend some time with their pet before the inevitable takes place. In the case of trauma or instant death, this is not possible but you can reminisce on the good times that were spent with your pet in the days, weeks or months before their passing. Take time to calmly explain to your child what has happened, offer a brief description of the event but again, back this up with a good scenario linked in to your own beliefs and a positive that may come out of the bad situation.

Younger children are not yet developmentally advanced enough to understand death from a rational perspective. Their own understanding will come to light in time but often young children see death as temporary or something that can be reversed. Be clear but kind your description and reassure them that they had no hand in their pets demise, it was inevitable and you are going to say goodbye in a way that your child will accept, possibly a celebration of their pets wonderful life.

Let the truth be told

Telling a lie to your child in the moment because it’s easier than the fact could only cause issues down the line when they realise what really happened. This may be when they are a little older and able to understand what may have happened and they may then become confused or less trusting of explanations they are given regarding other situations in the future. Avoid phrases like ‘Fido ran away’ or ‘Rover has gone on holiday’ as these concepts are not finite and your child may return to you time and again asking eagerly when their pet might return.

Coping strategies

As with anyone experiencing the loss of a loved one, children often experience a range of emotions that may include sadness, anger and upset at the idea of never seeing their pet again. They may feel lonely or frustrated that their pet did not recover from an illness or was in harm’s way when death occurred. They may also experience guilt as they may feel that they let their pet down and didn’t protect them. You can help your child to understand that it is a natural process to experience a wide range of emotions and that it is OK to do so.

As a parent or carer, don’t feel that you need to put on a brave face for your child. You can show your emotion too as this will help your child to feel less isolated and even offer an opportunity for you to grieve and comfort one another. It is perfectly acceptable to feel sad at the loss of a loved one and your pets are no different. It will comfort your child to know that they are not alone in their grief. You could take the opportunity to create a photo collage, write down stories that remind you all of the happiness your pet brought into your lives, place a photo of your pet in a frame somewhere in the home where they will be remembered and even just sit talking about your pet while you all come to terms with the reality of their passing.

Moving forward

Once the initial shock of the news has passed, you can help your child to move past their grief by focussing on the positive. Remember your pet through a special ceremony or burial, have a celebration to make the impact they had on your lives or write out little prayers if a religious or spiritual goodbye is important to your family values. Inform your child’s teacher and friends about the situation so that they are sensitive to your child’s needs until they have come to terms with the loss.

When you see your child becoming upset, try to remind your child of the happy times so that they form lasting memories that are positive rather than focused on death itself. If appropriate, your family can then welcome a new pet in time, not a replacement but a new friend for new adventures.

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