A couple of weeks ago we had to say good bye to the fifth member of our little family, our dog Kallie. She was the sweetest, gentlest pup in the world, with the friendliest smile you ever saw. We had 16 wonderful years with her, but unfortunately old age and degenerative myelopathy stole her away.
We knew that Kallie was getting older and her health was deteriorating, but when the time finally came we were all hit incredibly hard. My daughters in particular have never known life without her, and they’ve really been struggling.
It was that experience that led to this post intended to help other parents support their children coping with the death of a pet. When reading through the dos and don’ts in this article, it’s important to remember that everyone grieves differently. What one child may find comforting, another might find upsetting. Listen to your child when they tell you what helps and what doesn’t.
What To Do
There are several things that caregivers can do to help kids cope with the loss of a pet. The key is to be open and compassionate. Answer questions truthfully, tailoring your answers to their understanding at the same time.
- DO prepare your child. If your pet is elderly or ailing, start talking to your child about what will happen ahead of time. Explain that pets typically don’t live as long as humans, but that they can still enjoy spending time with their pet.
- DO tell kids the truth. Help them understand that death is permanent and their pet will not come back. If the death was accidental or unexpected, use simple, straightforward language to explain what has happened. Children don’t have the life experience to read between the lines the way adults can, so avoid euphemisms or vague language. Uncertainty or confusion about what has happened can lead to far more anxiety than knowing the truth.
- DO answer their questions honestly, in age-appropriate language. For example, if your pet must be euthanized, you can explain that the vet will give them medicine that makes them fall asleep, and then while they’re asleep a second medicine will stop their heart. Assure them that their pet will not feel afraid or upset, and that it will not hurt.
- DO give kids time to ask questions and a chance to say goodbye whenever possible.
- DO reassure your child that all sorts of feelings are normal. It’s okay to feel sad, lonely, numb, guilty, or even mad. It’s fine if they don’t want to talk about their feelings right away. Let them know you love them and you are available whenever they’re ready.
Grieving children may cry, have nightmares, experience increased anxiety, throw tantrums, wet the bed, become very clingy, or regress in other ways. If emotional distress and/or behavioural concerns persist or unduly interfere with their regular functioning, DO talk to your doctor or a counsellor.
- DO let them see that you’re sad too. Seeing you cry normalizes healthy grieving and lets them know they are not alone.
- DO talk about your lost pet and remind each other of your happy memories. It may help to look at pictures and videos. Consider arranging a goodbye ritual or creating a memory stone or memory book.
What Not to Do
Whether a dog, cat, hamster, lizard, fish, or other pet, kids develop strong attachments to their animal friends. To some it may be “just a pet,” but to the rest of us, our pets are part of the family and the grief is very real. It may seem easier to tell a little white lie with the good intention of avoiding that pain, but honesty really is the best policy, even for very young children.
- DON’T tell them their pet has run away. Kids may wonder what they did to make their pet leave. They may continue looking for and hoping their pet will come home one day, or feel responsible for their pet’s disappearance.
- DON’T sugarcoat things. It’s tempting to use euphemisms like “put to sleep,” but it’s better to be direct and honest. Younger children may confuse falling asleep with dying and become anxious or upset at bedtime. It’s best to be up front. Explain that their pet’s body has stopped working, and they will not be coming back.
- DON’T blame the vet for their pet’s death. Veterinarians help sick and injured animals, and kids shouldn’t be afraid of bringing an animal for help.
- DON’T try to secretly replace a pet. You might be tempted to quietly remove and replace a smaller pet (like a mouse, hamster, or fish) in the hopes that your child won’t notice, but this isn’t a good plan for a couple of different reasons. Firstly, they will at some point find out you lied and this will be very hurtful and confusing. In addition, loss is a part of life, so if you cover this up you’ll also miss out on a valuable opportunity to help your children learn to cope with grief.