You know those security questions that you have to answer every time you sign up for a new credit card? There seems to always be that one question about a memorable childhood pet. Every time that question pops up, it is hard to not take a quick trip down memory lane and think of all of the fond memories that were made during countless hours of playing fetch, walking with Fido, or reading a favorite book with Kitty curled up on your lap. A family pet can be one of the most memorable parts of childhood. The memories that are created while playing with, caring for, and tending to are not only memorable, but also serve to teach children lessons on responsibility and compassion. However, the inevitable reality of a childhood pet is that at some point the pet will die. As parents we are faced with the difficult task of helping our child(ren) navigate the grieving process.
Use age appropriate methods and language
Experts all agree that the way you go about talking to your children is dictated by their maturity level. You need to be sensitive to the fact that what is appropriate for older children might not work for your toddler.
No matter the age of the child, it is imperative that you do not lie or gloss over the truth. Telling your child that “Fido ran away” will not ease feelings of sadness in the short term and can only lead to issues of trust in the long term.
If you need to euthanize your pet and your children are too young to understand the process that is used, do not use terms like “put to sleep” or “put down”. Since these terms use common practices that both the child and mommy and daddy do regularly, they can lead to fear and anxiety. Rather be clear that the pet has died and that the vet gave your pet a shot that will first make the animal very sleepy and then will stop its heart from beating.
If your child is mature enough and the death is not sudden it can be appropriate to let your child say goodbye to the pet. If however, the death was sudden and there was no time to say goodbye, it is best to tell your child in an environment where they are comfortable and you can be present to answer all questions they have. When dealing with difficult subjects and young children, it is best, in general to let the child guide how much information they would like to hear based on the questions they ask you.
Many children will ask what happens to the pet after death. In this case it is relevant to use your own understanding of death and your faith in order to explain. It is also okay to share the fact that you do not know and talk about some of the ways in which people explain what happens to sentient beings after they die.
Read a book.
There are a number of excellent children’s books that address concepts of death for young children. We would strongly encourage you to preview the book to make sure that it is inline with your family’s value. Here are five of our favorites:
- Saying Goodbye to Lulu by Corrine Demas
- Goodbye Mousie by Robie H. Harris
- Remembering Blue Fish (Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood)by Becky Friedman and Jason Fruchter
- I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
- When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers
Respect your children’s feelings.
For many children, this could be their first experience with death which could lead to a wide range of emotional responses and can vary from child to child within your family. It is important to respect that your child is grieving and to also show your own grieving process. As a family, carve out time to address the feelings of loss and understand that a child might experience some fear or anxiety about family members or other pets.
Memorialize the pet.
A beautiful way to help a child process the loss is to have them express their feelings through art or in writing. A scrapbook is another great way to help you and your child remember and honor the family pet. It is totally fine to let children participate in burying their pet or scattering ashes if the pet is cremated. Another wonderful way to remember and memorialize the family pet is to plant a special tree or plant.
While it can feel very difficult as a parent to have to talk about difficult subjects with your children, there are plenty of excellent resources available. As always, we are here at Our Urgent Care to answer any questions that you and your family might have when coping with loss.