When a pet dies, the effect on the whole family can be devastating. If it is the first time a child has experienced the death of a pet, it can be incredibly hard to know what to tell them and how to help the child to grieve.
We unfortunately live in a society that often expects us to move on from the process of dealing with grief in a very timely manner. This can have devastating repercussions for children trying to cope with grief, I have written a guide on what to say when a pet dies, from my personal experience. Please note I am not a qualified grief therapist, just a mother who loves animals and her child dearly.
A friend recently lost their puppy, which seems to make it worse somehow, and was at a loss on how to help their young daughter cope with her grief. They were inclined to take the most common approach by trying to not give their daughter too much information, hoping to soften the grief for her. They were worried she did not have the skills to cope with the knowledge that their puppy had died.
However, it appears that experts do not agree with this approach. The reason is they feel it may lead a child to stress more and not be able to fully comprehend what has happened, leaving too much mystery surrounding the pets’ death.
I thought I would start this journey into dealing with a child’s grief by relating my personal story about losing our cat a few months ago, and how our son reacted.
Our Loss of Felix – A Personal Story
Recently we lost our 17 year old cat, and I decided to talk to my nearly 6 year old son about our cat’s death in a simplified but direct and respectful manner. I explained that I would be taking Felix to the vet, and briefly how the vet would send him to sleep forever. We spoke about how Felix was old and no longer able to stand on his own, and in pain. Our son was given the chance to say goodbye, we were both crying our hearts out, but I believe this is healing in itself.
On returning home with the body of Felix, I asked our son if he would like to see him, and having a child’s natural curiosity he said he would. I think for him it cleared up any images in his imagination on what Felix may look like, especially when he realized that he just looked like he was asleep. Later when my husband came home and we buried Felix, our son was happy to see his Dad give Felix one last hug before saying goodbye, and laying him in the ground.
Now I am no expert on this matter, however, the direct approach, and de-mystifying our cats death has certainly seemed to help with our son’s grieving process. Apart from a duckling which we owned for about 18 hours this was the first encounter with death that he had experienced.
On the negative side, I have since read that I should not have said that we were putting Felix to sleep, as this is not the association you want your child to have with sleeping.
Jumping forward a few months and he is coping remarkably well, often having a chat to Felix when he passes his burial spot under the Oak Tree. I have also heard him chatting to his friends about Felix and explaining how the vet made him sleep, and how we had a funeral for him. By talking about Felix and his death, shows me my son has been able to process it, and understands what has happened. He may not fully comprehend that Felix will never be a living part of our family, however, he has processed his emotions about Felix incredibly well.
This may also be partly due to his age, as children’s ability to understand death is linked to their age.
Understanding How A Child’s Age May Affect Their Reaction
All children are unique and you as a parent will need to use your knowledge of your child when deciding how to help them cope with the loss of a pet. Other influencing factors will be if your child has had any prior experience with death and how it was dealt with. However, here is a general guide on how age affects their emotional and rational response.
Age 3 to 5, this age range of children do not have the same ability to understand death as an adult does. They more than likely believe it is not forever, and may believe you can do something to bring their pet back to life. Another factor to consider in this age group is your child may feel they were the reason the pet died when they did something like wishing for a different pet, say a dog instead of a cat.
Ages 6 to 8, at this stage your child may realize that death is permanent, but they probably do not realize it can happen to their pet. They may feel it only happens to someone else, so while they may understand the concept, they do not always understand what the reality will mean for them.
Ages 9 to 11, this age group of children are more likely to understand that death is permanent and inevitable. However, in this age range they may still take on some responsibility for the pets’ death, like believing if they had played more with the pet it may not have died.
What To Say When A Pet Has Died
The experts advise to be as honest and direct as you can. However, do not feel like you need to go into too much detail. Give them the basics that they need to process the death without it being surrounded by mystery. So instead of saying to my son, we are putting Felix to sleep, I should have said that the vet was going to help Felix to die.
Do not paint a vivid picture of the death of your pet, especially if it was in a violent situation, you child does not need to have this type of image in their heads. It is okay to tell your child that their pet was killed on the road, but they do not need anymore detail
It is recommended that you pass on the news of a pet dying to your child as soon as possible. Once you have told them, give them a chance to ask questions, and answer as briefly and honestly as you can. Listening to their questions can really guide you on how they are feeling and processing the information. Listen to any suggestions they may have to bury your pet, or how they need to deal with the loss moving forward. This is especially relevant to older children.
I asked my son if he wanted to write a letter to Felix, which we ended up doing together. We have continued to chat about Felix in our everyday lives. and we openly say we miss him. I have seen my son move from being teary when we talked about Felix, to now remembering some of the good times and relating those with a smile.
One thing that the expert do note is that if your child continues asking questions, and they appear to want a more graphic description of the pets’ death, this may actually be their way of seeking comfort. They are not necessarily wanting the answers to their questions, but are after further comforting. Do try to make the death sound as peaceful as you can.
Older children may ask for details on the Euthanasia process. If they ask to be present, you may want to take them to the vet to discuss this and let the vet explain the process to them. Another option will be to allow them into the room immediately after the pet has been euthanized and they can then say goodbye.
Explaining euthanasia to a child under the age of 5 is not advised. You can instead tell them that the vet will be stopping your pet from having pain, or that the vet will not be hurting the pet but instead helping it.
Children React Differently To Grief
I overheard a parent chatting at school that she was concerned as their child did not seem to be displaying grief over the loss of their pet. This is a fairly common response in children and again their response can be related to their age.
The thing to bear in mind in this situation is that we all show grief in a multitude of ways. This is especially true for children. Younger children may appear to over react and then under react. So one moment they may be in tears and then not long after off running around and playing. This is normal and playing is one way to help them deal with the grief.
Help, my older child is asking very morbid questions, what should I do? Again, this is often the response of children in a 7 to 9 year age group. They are very curious and want details. It is suggested that you answer them as directly as possible and move on.
It is important to understand that all children do react to grief, however, as we are all individuals they will react differently. Your support, time and having an open and honest approach to their questions is the way forward to helping them cope.
Further Steps You Can Take To Help Your Child Cope
There are a number of further steps you can take to help your child cope, from writing letters, to marking their grave site, to making an album, or planting a tree. I will be writing another blog about this topic as it is too in depth to cover here.
I do want to touch on reading to your child. This is an immediate way to help them cope, and is a very successful way of dealing with death and grief. There are a number of books available to chose from, and I will include a list at the end of this blog.
Please do be aware that not all books are appropriate and they may have a religious leaning that may not be acceptable to you. I would suggest reading through a book first to make sure you agree with the message and they way it deals with grief. You do not want a book that promotes misconceptions about death. It is also good to look for books that show grief, sadness and how to deal with it. Remember you always have the option of leaving out any bits that you do not feel are suitable for your child.
Your child may start to ask for another pet soon after your pet has died. It is advised not to jump into buying another pet immediately. Give your child time to grieve and heal. You can in this time start to discuss another pet, and get your child involved in the process of choosing another pet. This includes deciding on what type of pet to get, the breed it if is a dog, the pets’ name, if you will get a rescue pet and any other relevant information.
In conclusion, I have said it already, but the big factor in dealing with your child’s grief is to remember that we are all unique, listen to them and answer in an honest and caring manner.
Please drop me an email if you want to be advised when I post a further blog on helping children to deal with grief over a pet. You can click on the email button at the end of this post.
Below is a list of books to help children deal with their grief, if you would like to recommend any, please leave a comment.
“Whoever said you can’t buy happiness, forgot little puppies.” – Gene Hill