For many families, pets are more than just animals, they are members of the family who are best friends, protectors, and playmates. Unfortunately, there comes a day when the family pet passes away. The concept of death is often first presented to kids through the death of a pet. This time can be stressful and confusing for children, especially young children who have yet to learn about or experience death in their lives.
The grieving process is unique for everyone, especially children who might be experiencing these emotions for the first time. Learning how to cope with these types of feelings in a healthy manner at a young age can benefit your kids later in life. We put together a few key points to keep in mind when talking to your kids about death.
Break the news gently and early on
Avoiding bad news or waiting until the “right moment” might seem like a good way to help ease kids into the death of a pet, but it can put undue stress on parents which can impact your kids’ reactions later. Rather than drag out the bad news, pull your kids aside and let them know as soon as possible.
Breaking the news of a death is something they will need time to process. Do this in a one-on-one environment where they are comfortable and can openly ask questions and process the information. Be sure to remain calm and clear about the information and explain it in an age-appropriate manner.
Stick to the truth
Many times, adults handle grief in a way that can make it hard to present factual information. Saying a pet “went over the rainbow bridge” might seem like a way to placate your child’s sadness, but in the long run it will only lead to more confusion. Be clear that the pet is dead and is not coming back. This can be done in an age-appropriate manner. Using phrases such as “went away” or “went to a big farm in the country” can lead younger children to believe their childhood pet is still out there somewhere. This can lead to confusion and additional distress, as well as mistrust and anxiety surrounding the whereabouts of their pet.
Additionally, blaming the vet or referring to euthanization as “being put to sleep” can cause negative associations with both vets and other medical professionals. According to KidsHealth from Nemours, you want to explain to your kids that the veterinarian did everything they could and that this was the best and least painful way to let your pet die.
Set a good example of how to handle grief
Remind kids it’s okay to cry and be sad. Grief is a complex emotion that can come out in a variety of forms. As a parent, make sure you are setting a good example for your kids about handling grief. Show how you feel and continue an open and honest conversation with your kids about death. Telling your kids stories about your own losses can also help them feel understood and know that grief is normal.
Create a safe space for your kids to grieve and let them talk out their emotions fully. Do not shame or talk down to your children about their expressions and forms of grief. If your child responds in an unhealthy manner, such as violence or self harm, contact a child psychologist immediately as these reactions can be signs of larger mental health problems.
Say goodbye in a meaningful way
Pets are an important part of the family and celebrating their life with a goodbye ritual can help give your kids the closure they need to grieve in a healthy way. Holding a backyard memorial service or scattering your pets ashes can be helpful in honoring the role your pet has played in the family. Other methods include creating a scrapbook for them, burying them with their favorite toy, or creating a small memorial at home filled with positive memories and photos.
Use books to help explain what has happened
As a parent, it can be just as hard, or harder even, to talk about the loss of a pet, especially one that has been through the birth of your child, rough patches of life, or other meaningful moments. To help you explain death, you can use the resources below:
- Koko’s Kitten – by Dr. Francine Patterson, ages 2–4 (amazon.com, starting at $7)
- The Goodbye Book – by Todd Parr, ages 3–6 (amazon.com, starting at $15)
- City Dog, Country Frog – by Mo Williams, ages 3–6 (amazon.com, starting at $18)
- A Stone for Sascha – by Aaron Becker, ages 5–9 (amazon.com, starting at $14)
- The Poet’s Dog – by Patricia MacLachlan, ages 6–10 (amazon.com, starting at $6)
- The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook – by Joanna Rocklin, ages 8–12 (amazon.com, starting at $8)
- Paper Wishes – by Lois Sepahban, ages 9-12 (amazon.com, starting at $8)