Most adults have been through the loss of a pet before, or other experiences with death and dying. But for many children, the loss of a beloved pet may be their first experience with death. Their experience will likely forever shape and affect them, making this experience very important.
We may want to protect kids from this painful experience but that may actually do more harm that good. Kids will look to us, in word and action, for guidance and support in understanding and mourning the loss of a special pet. Think about your past experiences with losing a pet- those experiences truly stay with us forever! Was there something you wish was done differently? Do you carry any resentment about it? It is never too late to develop skills and healthy approaches for yourself—this will also enhance your child’s ability to deal with this kind of deep loss.
My best friend growing up was my dog, “Tinker”. Tinker was the best! She was a small mini-schnauzer, with a big personality! Her presence and company filled so many memories of my childhood. When Tinker died, it was one of the hardest things I remember about my childhood. I was in 2nd grade at the time, and to this day, it brings tears to my eyes. Tinker died naturally at home. I don’t remember many of the details of her passing, but I vividly remember afterwards: Wrapping her in the most beautiful garment we had, digging a hole, covering her body with flowers from the backyard, and planting a peony over her grave site. The initial days that followed were full of grief. I remember crying so hard that I could hardly breathe and my face was so puffy and red. My mom let me stay home from school on one of the days, which was unheard of for my sister and I. To this day, those memories are raw and I have sometimes feel slightly guilty for feeling more emotion over missing my dog than other passed on relatives, but it is a reflection of the closeness of the relationship I had with Tinker.
As the “adult”, how can we help our younger ones? Here are some pointers:
- Talk through what they will likely see and feel & Show your feelings. Your children will look up to you to model grief, and it is helpful for them to see they are not grieving alone. Understand that you will feel a pleuthra of emotions, and so will your child. Be available for this to discuss their questions and feeling. This pertains to everything from natural death, the decision to euthanatize, as well as the grief they will experience afterwards. Don’t expect your veterinarian to do this, or place blame on your veterinarian (or animal caretaker) for your pet’s condition. Your vet can help with explaining the process but your children will likely have more questions and will need your guidance.
- Choose your words carefully and make sure your child understands what “dying” means. Explain that the pet’s body “stopped working” & make sure your child knows the pet has died and is not coming back. The general concept of death is likely not new for kids, but they may not understand the finality of it. For children, usually by 10 years they understand that death is final and all living things eventually die, but for younger children, they may not understand this concept. Depending on your beliefs, it may be helpful to discuss the concept of a soul & what you believe will happen after. Use words like Death and Dying, not “putting him to sleep” or “the pet went away”. If there is misunderstanding, children may look for the pet lifelong, have a fear of sleeping, or grow in resentment as they eventually discover what happened.
- Give your children the option to be present and say goodbye. One of my mentors told me that kids “dose themselves” with grief. I have found this to be absolutely true, and really a wonderfully helpful tactic. Some children may want to be present, others not. Many kids will choose to be present to some of the experience, and quickly drift off to some other activity, and likely return again. I find this to be an important concept in the grieveing process for adults too- they emotions may be so strong that sometimes its helpful to take a mental siesta if that feels right, and you can’t force emotions. Children may have a lot of question and curiosity as well, and it may even feel disturbing to some extent to answer all of them, but it is important to do so. You may not have the answers to all of their questions, and it is ok to tell them this.
- Make sure your child knows this was not their fault. Many children will wonder if the pet’s illness and death would have been avoided if they had done something better.
- Expect that your child will likely act differently as they grieve. Appetite, sleep habits, participation in activities, ability to focus, irritability level, etc are all common changes. Kids will look up to us as role models for how to respond.
- Let kids participate in a ritual after the pet has passed, to help them cope with the loss. This may be as simple as holding a ceremony for the pet, drawing a picture, writing a poem, making a memory book, planting something for the pet, taking time to remember special memories, etc. Have books and resources on hand to help them if needed.
- Children need support from others: Tell those that work closely with your children about the loss. This includes teachers, day care providers, other caregivers, family, parents of close friends, etc. Often children will act differently after the loss of a pet (just like we do!), and this will help explain the change in behavior.
After Boo Bear’s passing, Skylar told me “Boo is on his way to Heaven and is going to watch over us, and tell us he loves us”. I often feel I have much to learn from kids! They look to us so much for modeling how to grieve and for support, but often they offer such innocence and wisdom. Untainted by life, some of the most profound words come from the breath of a child. Dr. Suess once said “Adults are just outdated children”, what a good reminder for to us for our mindset in dealing with our pets and kids!
What have your experiences been?