If you have children, the loss of a pet might be their first time dealing with death, and your first opportunity to teach them about coping with the grief and pain that accompanies the joy of loving another animal. Many kids love their pets very deeply and may not even remember a time in their life when the pet wasn’t around. The tragedy of losing a pet can often be traumatic for them. It is important to deliver the news of the death to a child in a way that is both gentle and reassuring that death is a natural process. To soften the blow it may be beneficial to do this in a private setting where your child might feel more open to honestly express how they feel.
The best practice in dealing with children is to be transparent with your language and to keep it simple. For example, If your dog Rocky has died, you should be straightforward with how you phrase things so there is no miscommunication. For example, say “Rocky has died” instead of saying, “Rocky passed away” or “we lost Rocky”.
You should explain that:
- Rocky’s heart stopped beating and he doesn’t breathe in and out anymore.
- He doesn’t need to eat or go to the bathroom.
- He cannot see, hear, or move.
- He cannot feel pain.
- Being dead is not the same as sleeping. All your body parts work when you are sleeping. When a person dies, her body has stopped working. The part of Rocky that was alive is gone. All that’s left is his body.
Make sure they understand that it is permanent. In simple terms, you can introduce them to this concept, which might be a little scary to them at first. It helps to use clear language and not be vague because children very frequently take things more literally than adults.
For example, if you did say, “we lost Rocky” they might think Rocky is lost somewhere. It seems very brutally honest, but it is the best way to help them understand this concept.
Another advantage to talking to your children about this topic is that you get to educate them in a loving way. You will probably be able to explain to them ideas better than anyone else. Furthermore, you will most likely be the best possible person to answer questions that they might have, and help them better understand the concept of death in a way that makes sense to them.
A child may feel angry and blame themselves—or you—for the pet’s death. A child may feel scared that other people or animals they love may also leave them. It is natural for people to react differently to grief and tragedy. Sadness and grief can be very complex emotions to deal with. The best thing you can do in this situation is to listen to your child. Don’t try to explain away their feelings. Just listen and answer any questions they might have.
Also, it is ok for you, the parents to show openness. Don’t be afraid to show some vulnerability in front of your children. Seeing adults grieve provides a model for children on how to express sorrow. Furthermore, it shows kids that expressing emotion is normal and beneficial within context. It is also especially important because children rarely see adults cry.
Don’t Lie to the Children
Some parents feel they should try to shield their children from the sadness of losing a pet by either not talking about the pet’s death, or by not being honest about what has happened. Pretending the pet ran away, or “went to sleep,” for example, can leave a child feeling even more confused, frightened, and betrayed. These feelings will also re-emerge later when they finally learn the truth. It’s far better to be honest with children and allow them the opportunity to grieve in their own way.
Hopefully this article has better equipped you to effectively talk with your children about the death of a beloved pet.