How To Help Your Children Cope With The Loss of The Family Pet
Coping with the loss of a family pet is sometimes as difficult as losing a family member. For children, this is especially true as the passing of their pet is likely their first experience of death. Depending upon their age, your children will react to, cope with and grieve in different ways, but in any case, it is important for you to know how to handle the situation.
Here are five things to keep in mind when it comes to helping your child cope with the loss of a beloved animal companion.
Explain the situation
Perhaps the most difficult part of a pet passing is having to break the news to your children. You must use your judgment here and only offer as much information as is necessary to inform your child about the situation.
Most young children don’t have a firm grasp on death as a concept so it’s important you explain that since your pet has died, he won’t be coming back.
If your pet has to be euthanized as a result of old age or illness, explain to your children that your pet has died because they were very sick and now they are no longer in pain. If your pet died in an accident or as a result of a short injury, explain what has happened without going into too much detail. Your children may or may not ask questions, in which case, answer as best you can.
You must ensure your explanation doesn’t confuse your child though. It’s ok to use words like ‘death’ and ‘died’ but don’t use ‘put to sleep’, ‘God took him’ or any other euphemisms. Young children take things literally and by associating such a tragedy with sleep and/or God, they may develop negative feelings around such.
While it may seem like the easier option to tell your child that your pet has gone to a farm or some other fabricated tale, honesty really is the best policy.
The reality is, your pet is not coming back and by lying about the circumstances, you’re not doing anything to spare their feelings. In their eyes, their pet is gone either way. Realistically, by lying, you’re wasting an opportunity to teach your child about death.
Learning about death and experiencing the circle of life from an early age makes children more resilient and more able to cope with and understand such events in the future.
Understand their grief
Depending on your child’s maturity and age, the level of grief they experience will vary. Toddlers, for example, probably won’t feel sorrow like a 6-8-year-old would. That said, grief is highly individualized and therefore it’s important not to assume how your child is feeling. Further to that, it’s crucial you don’t tell your child how they should be feeling or ignore their grieving process. You should avoid phrases like ‘be strong’ or ‘Max wouldn’t want you to cry’ because it can belittle their feelings and cause them to internalize their pain.
Remember that no matter what age we are, we all experience a variety of emotions during our time of bereavement. With children, this could manifest in a number of ways including loneliness, confusion, anger and behaviors they wouldn’t normally exhibit. Sometimes, because you are not seeing the ‘normal’ reactions to grief, you may be quick to assess your child’s behavior as insubordinate or you may not recognize the signs that they’re struggling. Make sure you talk to your child about their feelings and try to pick up on cues they might need some more help to cope.
Create a memorial
Whether your child has taken the loss of their pet hard or not, creating a memorial to remember him is a lovely idea. For older children who are suffering after their pet’s death, a memorial will help them with closure and can provide the same comfort that a memorial for a person would for an adult. For those who don’t fully understand what has happened, a memorial can be a valuable teaching moment to help them comprehend the finality of the situation.
Either way, allowing your children to take part in a mini-ceremony and place a keepsake urn in a prominent place will go a long way to helping ease their feelings at this time.
Openness and honesty is the key to not only helping your child move forward but also for helping them create a healthy relationship with death. Obviously, death at any age is difficult to handle, but by talking about your late pet after their passing, you’ll be showing your children that death should not be feared.
It’s okay to talk about the happy memories you shared. It’s okay to talk about being sad afterward. And it’s okay to move on.