The death of a beloved family pet is often a child’s first experience with loss. This sad event, when handled in a sensitive manner, is an opportunity to create a healthy foundation for future losses.
There is no perfectly right way to approach this sensitive subject, but it’s important that when a pet dies or death is anticipated, parents explain things openly and honestly at the child’s level of understanding. As much as parents would like to protect their children from feeling sad, including them is a valuable life experience.
When parents tell their child about the death of their pet, they must be prepared to answer questions. They don’t have to provide every detail, but it is helpful to tell them in simple terms what happened. This information will help them to begin processing the concept of life and death. When avoiding answers to questions, the child's imagination may create images that are more scary or gruesome than the truth.
Assure parents that when they listen carefully, the child will let them know how simple or detailed their answers need to be. Encourage the parents to answer honestly about the physiology of death; for example, now that the pet is dead, his heart, mind and body are not longer working. The pet no longer breathes or moves. The pet’s body is no longer warm, but cold. Many parents choose this time to share their spiritual beliefs about afterlife.
I like to emphasize to parents that is important to use the words “died” or “death” with children of all ages. If they tell their young child that their pet went to sleep and didn’t wake up, the child may begin to fear bedtime, afraid that they might experience the same fate. Young children are literal and don’t always understand euphemisms like “went to sleep”, or “God took her.” It is very important that parents literally say the pet has died.
I urge parents to encourage their child to express their emotions freely. Not giving the opportunity to share feelings can lead to behavioral issues and may prevent them from completing their mourning. Tell parents that allowing their child to see them cry and grieve will show them that expressing emotions is okay. When a parent shares their grief with their children they create an opportunity to communicate and bond through the shared experience.
Children are resilient. By sharing this sad event with them with sensitively and honestly, parents will find that they are helping children process their own grief in a healthy and successful way.