Our pets are our best friends and a constant source of comfort, companionship, unconditional love, acceptance and fun. Sadly, however, statistics show they will die before we do. While as adults with all the associated maturity of “grown-ups” we have learned death is a part of life, when faced with the loss of our pets we can be set into a spin of sadness and even prolonged depression. The impact of losing a pet cannot be minimized, particularly for single people whose pet is often the only face to greet them when they return home.
For children, the death of a beloved pet can be even more profound. For many, it’s their first encounter with death. As such, telling your child about the death of a pet needs to be handled very carefully.
What should I tell my children?
It’s important to be honest. By being honest, you may even have the chance to speak to fears they have about loss and death. Gently let your child know their pet has gone away forever. If your family is religious and believes in an afterlife, add this to the conversation. There’s no right or wrong way to tell your child. However these tips are a good general guideline:
- Be gentle about it.
- Answer their questions directly and kindly.
- Encourage them to talk about the good times they had with their pet. Listen to their stories. Encourage them to draw pictures of their pet.
- Even if your child is older, make sure if you say their pet was “put to sleep” they understand the difference between sleep and death.
- Allow time before introducing a new pet into the family. If you have surviving pets, they will also mourn the change. Give them time to adjust too.
- Let your children cry and feel sad.
- Be honest with them about your own sadness.
- Hold a ceremony to say good-bye. Include other family members and even other pets
What should I not do?
Even though a child under the age of seven probably doesn’t really comprehend the full impact of permanent loss, don’t ”protect” them by telling them their dog left to live with someone else or ran away. Some children may blame themselves for their pet’s departure and suffer serious guilt and anguish.
- Don’t be brutally honest. There’s absolutely no reason to tell them if their pet suffered.
- Don’t fabricate what happened.
- Be careful not to talk in specifics with other adults unless you are absolutely sure your child can’t hear you talking.
- Don’t minimize your child’s grief. Children need time to mourn the loss of their pet.
Are there resources to help me?
The following are a few books which have helped others.
- Good-bye Mousie, by Robie H. Harris is a wonderful book written for children age three to five about a young child who learns his beloved mouse has died. With the help of his family, he learns it is okay to feel angry and sad. By voicing his feelings and asking questions, he begins to accept Mousie’s death.
- The Tenth Good Thing about Barney is a classic children’s book by Judith Viorst about a boy’s grief about his cat’s death. His mother suggests he think of ten good things to remember about Barney.
- Jasper’s Day, by Marjorie Blain Parker, is a beautiful book about a dying dog’s special day before he is “euthanized” by the vet – and the family’s sadness as they say goodbye to Jasper by giving him a last day filled with his favorite activities.
- Murphy and Kate, the story of a girl, her dog, and their 14 years together is a good one for seven to twelve-year-olds. Murphy joined her family when Kate was a baby and immediately became her lifelong playmate. Grief stricken at Murphy’s death, Kate is comforted by her memories.
- The Loss of a Pet by Wallace Sife, shares insights on the process of grieving and why loss of a pet can be so devastating. Sife offers practical, compassionate techniques for adults dealing with the grief associated with the death of a pet. The book also explores the special needs of children whose pets die.
Remember, it’s perfectly normally to acknowledge your feelings and express grief around your children. Sharing this permission to be sad will help them heal too.
Advice from this column is not a substitute for professional medical attention. Please contact your own veterinarian if you suspect your pet may have eaten something other than their own food. Questions for future blogs can be submitted to Dr. Melissa.