Helping Children Deal with the Death of a Pet
We want our children to learn how to accept death as a permanent goodbye, and to celebrate life and good memories rather than memorialize grief.
Don’t wait for one big “tell-all” to start helping children understand death. Both birth and death are parts of life, and children are curious about them, but they don’t need to know everything there is to know all at once.
Over the course of time, we all experience losses and good-byes: friends move away, pets die, teachers and classmates change, and sometimes parents get divorced. Children learn early that loss and change can happen.
Encourage the children to ask questions about birth and death well before such an event. Use every opportunity to ease the youngster into knowledge, understanding and acceptance of loss and change, including death.
Don’t be evasive and don’t use misleading euphemisms.
Understand that grief is a profound feeling of sadness that is a natural and normal reaction to the loss of what has been dearly loved, and that healing grief is a process, not an event. Overcoming grief takes time.
Don’t assume that children always grieve in some kind of orderly and predictable way, and don’t assume every child in a certain age group understands death the same way or has the same thoughts and feelings.
Some experts talk about stages of grief. Although it is suggested that these stages are transitional phases, they can actually appear simultaneously, be skipped, or appear in different order. They are possibly better taken to be different aspects of a person’s experience with grief, which are more or less apparent. These are: Shock, Guilt, Anger, Alienation, Distancing, Depression, Denial, and Resolution.
The emotional reaction to the death of a pet is determined by degree of involvement with the animal. The parents’ reaction may be more profound than the children’s. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the children’s thoughts and feelings are, or should be, the same as yours.
Discover what each child is experiencing. Because the love experience the child has with the pet was unique and personal, try to determine what the child is thinking and feeling about the loss. Allow the child to communicate his personal grief experience. Don’t assume you know.
Be alert to “magical thinking” and feelings of self-blame. Sometimes children believe that their thoughts can cause things to happen. We all sometimes wish the dog or cat would go away and leave us alone. If the child has had thoughts like this, the youngster may think that the thought caused the death. This has to be confronted directly, and corrected by sympathetic explanation of what really caused death. Also, if a pet has been troublesome, the child may experience a feeling of relief that it is gone, and may or may not feel guilty about it. Relief may well be a natural and normal reaction, and the child should not be blamed for being indifferent to the pet’s death. If a feeling of relief and guilt are present, the adult should focus upon the reality that the pet was indeed troublesome, and that there is no reason to feel guilty about being relieved that it is gone.
If the pet was in misery, and death was a mercy, a feeling of relief maybe present, and the child should be encouraged to perceive its death as a blessing and a freedom from pain and suffering.
Don’t tell the child what to feel – the objective is to teach the child how to deal with what is felt by what you say and do. Explain that everyone has his own feelings about the pet and its loss. Be alert that the child may not feel what you do and may feel guilty or confused about that.
Talk straight, don’t beat around the bush, and do use accurate vocabulary as much as possible. Never tell the child the pet was “put to sleep” or that it has “gone to sleep”. Death is not sleep. The pet “died” and it is “dead”, just like a flower or a leaf has lived and died.
Help the youngsters celebrate life and good memories. Tour the photo album. Use the photos to stimulate special memories, fun times, and funny things. Allow the children to cry when these stimulate a feeling of sadness, and then encourage them to laugh at the funny things. Both a good cry and a good laugh are therapeutic.
Have a goodbye ceremony. The pet or its cremated remains can be buried. Reinforce the idea that the pet will make things grow and contribute to new life. We recommend the excellent book by Judith Viorst, “The Tenth Good Thing About Barney” which communicates this idea in a charming way.
If the pet is cremated, the remains can be mixed with Alaska wildflower seeds and scattered in some special place where the seeds will always blossom a tribute to the life of the pet. This is a beautiful way to say goodbye; a way to remind both the children and adults that life continues in some form; and a way to teach the kids a healthy way to bring the experience to closure. Don’t forget that the Alaska State Flower is the Forget Me Not.
This is also an opportunity for the members of the family to share their feelings, good memories, and support one another. It will strengthen family bonds and strengthen each child’s ability to deal with the next experience of death.
Tell the children to expect to feel sad perhaps for a long time whenever they think of the pet’s death, and that this is normal, just like feeling joy whenever they remember how much fun they had with the animal.
Finally, there can be closure in a prayer that we composed and use in expressing Harthaven’s condolences:
Lord, You have embraced a good friend and loving companion.
While we mourn what we have lost, we do celebrate what we had, and in saying goodbye, we renew our pledge to love and care for any creature You entrust to us for its time of life.
Thank You, Lord, for making it possible for us to have made this friend’s life with us a good one.