While some may think grieving the loss of a pet isn’t the same as grieving the death of a family member, that’s simply not true. Pets are a vital part of the family, and when a pet passes away, the loss is very real. It’s normal for the grieving period to last longer than a few weeks.
For a child, a pet is a best friend who doesn’t judge and is always up for playtime or cuddles. They’ve been through hard times and good times together, including many misadventures. When a pet passes, it’s very hard for the child to deal with the loss of their best friend, but a gentle and honest conversation is always the best way to handle the loss of a pet.
Telling Your Child About a Pet’s Passing
One of the most difficult parts of a pet’s passing is telling your child. How will they react? How do you best support them and answer questions?
The child needs to know their pet is no longer in any pain, and that it will be OK. Beyond that, how much information does the child need to know? Measure what to tell them based on their age, life experience and maturity level. Be as honest as possible when answering their questions.
If the pet is close to passing due to age or illness, start breaking the news early to ease your child into the grieving process. If you have to euthanize your pet, you’ll need to tell your child:
- The veterinarians have done everything possible.
- The pet won’t be coming back and could not be saved.
- Euthanasia gives the pet a pain-free and peaceful death.
- Death is a natural part of life, and it’s OK to feel sad.
Keep explanations simple and clear. Be careful of using terminology like “being put to sleep,” because children will often take this phrase literally, assuming the pet will eventually wake up. Everyone is scared of death at one moment or another, and it’s OK to broach this gently. Focus on the process of what happens when the veterinarian gives the pet a shot to stop its heart, emphasizing the pet is not being hurt, but being helped to pass over without pain and will be with loved ones the whole time.
Some children will want the opportunity to say goodbye before euthanasia, and may be mature enough to be there for the pet as it occurs. Every parent should consider this option carefully, clarifying the process with the child, asking them what they think.
Honesty Is the Best Policy With a Pet's Passing
A sudden passing of a pet is shocking for everyone. Keep calm and gently explain what happened to your child, letting them ask questions. Allow those questions to guide the level of information you provide, opting to answer as truthfully and simply as possible.
Children are extremely perceptive and will pick up on a lie. Catching a parent in a lie breaks an intrinsic trust in the bond between parent and child.
Don’t say the pet has gone on vacation, is sleeping or has run away. The child will think the pet may come back, or it’s their fault the pet ran away.
Helping a Child Cope in Bereavement
The loss of a pet hits just as hard as the loss of any human family member. Let your child know it’s OK to take as long as they need to mourn the loss of their best friend.
The grieving process is different for everyone. Your child will feel sad, angry and confused, and you’ll need to be there to help talk things through. Remember, you’ll be grieving too, and it’s healthy to share your feelings of sadness with your child.
Does your child want a place to visit their pet? Pet crematoriums exist, and so do pet cemeteries. Digging a hole in the backyard isn’t the best idea because you may move or experience a natural disaster with flooding.
Let them cry. Show them how to use their anger constructively. Be there to answer questions and share stories about how you handled the passing of your childhood pets.
Hold a small pet memorial at home or do an activity with your child to help them process their feelings and start to heal. Commission a painting or plant a garden. Talk about your favorite memories of your pet. Look through photos, and create a memory book together. Give your pet a final place of honor.
Continuing With Life
Don’t stop talking about your pet, who was your child’s best friend and an important member of the family. Encourage your child to engage in activities they enjoy and make sure they stay involved in a daily routine, which helps keep life moving forward and gives them positive things to anticipate.
After a pet passes, wait to bring home a new pet, and give your child time to grieve. Moving on doesn’t mean you’ll forget the pet. The memories will always be treasured. Speak of your pet with love and fondness as the memories come up, and remember, time heals all wounds.