By Hannah Slattery, LPC, NCC
It’s never easy losing a loved one, a four-legged dog or cat, a croaking frog, or a slithering snake. These creatures become a part of our family, they become a place of comfort, showing kindness and support that some of us don’t receive elsewhere. So when that loved one passes away, that child loses an outlet, a place of solitude. This could potentially be a child’s first experience with death, one that most of us can probably remember. Our first awareness that life is not permanent and all things come to an end. When a family’s pet dies, it can affect everyone differently. Here are some ways to help support your child(ren) through the process.
Age Appropriate Conversations
First, be cognizant of your child(ren) age, each age group needs a little bit of a different explanation when it comes to talking about death.
If your child is under the age of 7
If possible, speak to your children before the animal passes away. Explaining that pets can die for various reasons, illness, old age, or injuries. Explain that it is normal and healthy to feel sad about this.
Be honest and direct when talking about death with a child. Use the words death and dying instead of beating around the bush and saying went to sleep or went away. These euphemisms can become confusing and give hope that the pet might eventually come back.
Every child is going to process death differently. Death may become a part of their playing experience while they are grieving, this is normal. Reaffirming that the pet has died and their body is no longer working will teach young children, unfortunately, about the permanence of death.
Children over the age of 8 might be able to grasp the permanence of death but it will still be a grieving process.
Answer questions your child might have about what happened to their pet, for example, explaining what it means for the pet to be put down through euthanasia.
Remind your child it is okay to cry. Give them this space to explore all the emotions they could be experiencing, let them know about how you are feeling about the loss of the family pet as well. This does not have to be a disconnecting time for your family, it can be a growth experience.
Honor the family pet
Regardless of age, it’s appropriate and encouraged to honor the family pet. This can be done by engaging in a goodbye ritual such as creating a scrapbook of memories, holding a memorial service, or spreading the pet’s ashes. Allow the child(ren) to be apart of this ritual, letting them decorate a grave marker or even a stone to have as a symbol of remembrance and love.
If you, the parent, are struggling on what to say, there are plenty of resources to help encourage a healthy conversation about pet loss.
The Legend of the Rainbow Bridge: (Ages 4 and up) A well-known poem with colorful and comforting paintings of pets crossing a rainbow to the next world.
Saying Goodbye to Lulu: (Ages 4–7) A coming-of-age story about a young girl and her dog Lulu. When Lulu passes away later in life, the girl learns how to keep her memories of her friend close to her heart.