The bond between children and their pets can be very deep indeed. They see their pet as many things: a best buddy, a playmate, a confidant, even a sibling. As parents our natural reaction is to try to shield them from the hurt and upset that losing a pet brings.
There is a temptation to ‘soften the blow’ by telling a white lie, or shielding the fact that the pet has died or will be euthanased. Saying such things as ‘he’s gone to live on a farm’, ‘she’s off chasing rabbits’ or ‘he ran away’, only brings more confusion. Your child will wonder why they were allowed to leave without them having had the opportunity to say good-bye, or worse still, believe that it was something they did that drove their pet to leave. What you tell your child in the event of losing a pet will stay with them forever. Loss of a pet is often the first experience of death that a child will encounter. Finding ways to be honest with them, and giving them age-appropriate information (see below), will help them to work their way through that new emotion, and build resilience. They will need support from you to understand and adjust to their loss. If it’s too raw for you to cope with, then seek help on this from an adult friend with children who have experienced loss already, your vet, teacher or child counsellor.
A child will grieve – just as we do. However the grief won’t necessary follow any pattern. Don’t assume that if at the time they brushed it off and didn’t pay much attention to it, that they won’t bring up the matter again. Leave an opening there for them to talk about it in the future if ever they want to. They will likely see that you are upset during your own grieving process. Again you may want to shield them from the worst of your grief, but showing some is OK. It lets them know that dying is a normal part of living and it’s Ok to be upset about someone or a pet that has gone.
How you break it to a child that their pet is dying or has died, or will be euthanased depends on the age and maturity of the child. A helpful reference is given on http://www.aplb.org/support/children_and_pet_loss.html
You may also wish to source a book ‘Missing my pet’ by Alex Lambert Age 6, co-written by Clare Butler. This story is from Alex’s perspective, and there are helpful guidance notes for parents from Alex’s mum.
Further things to keep in mind if your pet is to be euthanased:
- Do not use the term ‘Putting to sleep’. Children do not understand this concept and will naturally question when their pet is going to wake up again, even if at the time they seem to accept it. Further, it will only make things more difficult if you are having your pet cremated and will cause much confusion and upset.
- Some children will have difficulty understanding that when someone or a pet has died, they will not come back to life. At this time, there are many online games and video games whose characters have ‘health’ statuses that can be boosted, or regeneration abilities following death. These can lead to a confusion among children of a certain age about the permanence of death. You may also have religious beliefs about death. Try to talk through your belief with your child gently, and at a depth that’s appropriate to them.
- You might be considering whether to have your child or children present when your pet is being euthanased. This decision is very personal to you and your child. There's no right or wrong.Talk this through with them, but don’t try to force them in any way. Consider that while your pet’s passing will be peaceful, there are often body reflexes that take place after death that you should prepare them for. If explained to them carefully in advance, this should not alarm them; it is a normal part of dying.
Encourage your child to remember their pet in a positive way. This will help them – and you – to work through their grief. Memorialising a pet will allow them to remember the nice things about having a pet, the funny things they did, and validate the important status that their pet had in their life. Some kinds for memorialising include:
- Make a memory box with drawings, photos and mementoes in it. A favourite pet toy could be included and maybe a lock of their pet’s hair.
- Get them to help you plant a small bush or tree in the garden. Let them help pick the plant. Putting some kind of ornament or item to mark a spot that was favoured by their pet, or where their pet was buried will give them somewhere to specifically think of their pet. It doesn’t need to be a specially-made plaque or ornament, although there are many nice ones available, and it may be something you wish to do; your child could paint or decorate a pebble or stone, and place it in a flower bed.
- Let your child make a special Christmas bauble for the tree, with a picture of their pet or a drawing they have decorated.
- Have your child write or draw a favourite story or activity, or even a goodbye note. If possible, put this with the deceased pet. This helps the child to feel included at this sad time, that they have played a valued part, and that they have helped their pet to feel better on their passing.
- If you are keeping your pet’s ashes at home, then let your child help you in picking out an urn or container to keep them in, and help choose the spot where you keep them.
- You may wish to have a little ceremony for your pet, lighting a candle, and inviting each person in the family to share their most happy memory of their pet.
All of these things will help you too in coping with your grief. You can also participate in pet forums for remembrance, and many newspapers and other media also carry pet remembrance notices if it will help you to do this. Do what feels right for you.