How to help your child through the grief process after the loss of a pet. Get tips on working through grief, how to explain things to your kids, and actions you can take to help your child work through the hard emotions.
If you read my post 7 Things Having Pets Taught Me About Parenting, you know that I love my pets and find so much value in having pets beyond the normal things you think of. Pets provide many fond memories and many teaching opportunities.
Owning a pet, however, is not all sunshine and roses–especially when you come to that day when a pet dies.
I have had countless pets in my day. I have loved and nurtured many animals who have since gone to their graves.
Really, this reality is a great learning opportunity for children. My sister and I were talking about this one day and how having pets prepared us for dealing with the reality of death in our family relationships. We learned how to cope.
This does not make the loss of a pet easy, happy, or fun. I find it especially hard as a parent–you want to do and say all of the right things to your kids.
Since having children, we have now had three major pet deaths. We lost several goldfish over the years, but those are easier to manage (but a great stepping stone pet for children). We have lost two dogs and one cat.
I still remember the details of the day I lost a beloved pet as a child. The loss of a pet is hard to deal with. Here are some steps to take as parents to help your children.
Allow Grief To Happen
Whenever there is cause for grief in your child’s life, it is important to allow those emotions to be felt.
Sadness after the death of a pet is very appropriate and normal. Do not try to get your child to not feel it. As parents, we hate to see our kids sad, but sadness is needed.
You also want to let your own grief to be felt. Let your child see your sadness.
You might feel tempted to rush out and get a new pet after your pet’s death to help cover up those hard feelings. Let the grief happen before jumping into a new pet.
If you know it is coming, you can get a new pet before your pet dies. If you get a new pet after your pet dies too soon, it can feel like you are trying to “replace” the old pet, which can lead to guilt and a lack of attachment to the new pet.
Be patient as you and your family members work through this grief. Remember the 5 stages of grief:
- Bargaining (can also be guilt or blame)
Note that “It is rare to move through the stages in a linear way. “
If you do not allow this grief process to happen, you will stunt the progress toward acceptance.
It can be a good idea to get your child (and yourself!) a journal to write down and process feelings and help your child cope.
Artwork is a great way for young children to process feelings.
Use Real Terminology
As much as possible, use actual terminology to discuss your pet’s death.
If your pet loss was due to an illness, use the correct terms.
Your child will take the things you say literally. If you say your pet is “sleeping,” your child will likely think that is what is happening. As time goes on and your pet never wakes up again, this can even lead to confusion and fear of sleep.
You even want to avoid the term “put to sleep” for young children. That is a common term for euthanizing a pet, but it is not the best term for a young child.
Keep Things Age-Appropriate
With that said, you want to keep things age appropriate for your child’s age.
You will handle things differently for children ages 8 and younger than you would a teenager.
While you want to be honest and use accurate terminology, you do not have to volunteer the full information.
For example, if euthanasia is part of the death of your pet, you do not necessarily have to tell your 5 year old that, but you would tell your 15 year old that.
You will have to decide what to share based on your child’s maturity level.
A good rule of thumb for everything related to kids and hard topics is to let them lead. You start with the basic information that you know is appropriate.
If they have questions beyond what you have provided, they will ask. If not, they are not ready for it.
Have a Funeral or Ceremony
A funeral or ceremony can be very helpful to bring closure. How that looks will vary depending on your circumstances. You might be able to bury your pet’s remains. You might be able to spread ashes. You might just gather as a whole family and share stories, fun times, and memories.
Remember Your Pet
Find ways to remember and honor your pet. These can help with the grief process.
You might make a scrapbook of your pet. You might gather tangible items like a favorite toy, a collar, or a brush and save the items. I still have items from my own childhood pets.
Our Loss of Pet Stories
Our first loss as a family was in early 2011. Our kids were 5, 3, and 1 at the time. We lost a dog to breast cancer. She was over twenty years old (yes indeed–about 22–I got her in elementary school). She had even had breast cancer for several years. After removing the cancer, she just kept right going.
This dog basically died of old age and had a terminal illness for many years, so we were emotionally and mentally prepared for her passing.
Our other dog loss happened in May of 2012. She was also lost to cancer (sad right? How often does a dog die from cancer and we get two???). This was bone cancer. She was only 6 years and so it came as a huge shock to us.
This one was harder to deal with. She was young and it was very unexpected. It also came on very suddenly–bone cancer is very aggressive. When we found out, the veterinarian told us she would last at most 3-6 months and only if we amputated her leg.
After thought and prayer, we decided against the leg amputation. We spent about 45 dollars a week on medication to make her comfortable and watched for signs she was ready to go.
It was nice to have the time to prepare the children, even if it was short. Brayden, 7, and Kaitlyn, 5, understood what we meant when we told them our dog would not live much longer and that she would soon die. McKenna, 3, did not understand at all.
We were extra mindful about taking photos with her so we would have them to remember her. I made sure to get a good photo of each child with her.
When the day came that we knew it was time, we decided against telling the children we were euthanizing her. We didn’t want them to know a doctor was able to take life like that. They were all young. My husband scheduled the appointment during school/afternoon nap time. I had Kaitlyn go to independent play strategically so she wouldn’t realize the dog left and came back.
That evening, we buried her in our yard. We were fortunate to be able to have the burial. It really brought closure to the two older children and my husband and me.
At her graveside, we all went around and shared our favorite things about our dog, and then said a prayer. For McKenna, the burial helped her realize our dog was actually gone, though she didn’t understand how or why.
There were many sweet moments in association with this experience. I was crying and Kaitlyn asked me why I was sad. I told her I was sad our dog had died.
She told me I didn’t need to be sad; our dog was in Heaven playing fetch with Jesus. She was also excited that our dog would no longer be in pain and that she would get to play with our other dog and our lost brother. Her faith was so sweet. She then drew me a picture of our dog in Heaven chasing 20 cats.
There were hard moments, as well. McKenna did not understand what happened and didn’t really seem to grasp it–either that or she refused to accept it. During the burial, she asked what we were doing to her “snoozing dog.”
She then would come to me crying for weeks telling me she wanted her dog back. After about a month or so, Brayden and Kaitlyn talked about getting a new dog and McKenna informed them that we already had a dog. While Brayden and Kaitlyn were able to prepare for our dog’s passing, McKenna was not. She was better with time.
Our cat was the during a very cold snap one winter. She loved to go on adventures. She left one day when the high was -20. The high stayed there for two weeks. She never returned.
This one was harder because we never knew she for sure had died. She was always a wandering cat. It was quite normal for her to disappear for a week or even two and then come back.
So we held out hope. We took a long time to accept she was really gone.
I remember several key deaths of certain pets in my lifetime. You have a certain bond with some pets, and when you lose those pets, it is a hard thing that stays with you forever.
But through these events, I have learned to rely on my faith for comfort through the process.
The loss of a pet is difficult, but an inevitable part of the journey when you have a beloved companion. These tips can help your grieving child, and you, move through the grief process.
This post first appeared on this blog in June 2012