Everyone in a family feels the loss of a pet, a special family member. We recommend that parents consider their children’s loss from two standpoints. First, they will no longer have their beloved pet. Second, their pet’s death is the particular reason for their loss. Children will have to confront loss in general and confront death specifically.
Managing loss: Life is filled with losses, either temporary or permanent. Grandparents visit and return home, teachers and friends come and go, families move and children lose cherished environments, toys break or get lost. As children grow, there also are increasing internal losses as they relinquish unrealizable hopes and dreams or physical charms and abilities fade, as examples.
The ability to manage loss well enables one to maintain a good spirit about life. Let’s address three areas that are important to managing loss well:
Accepting emotion: Loss stirs sadness and other feelings. For example, a child may have turned to his or her pet when scared or lonely, in which case that child may feel more anxiety or loneliness. A particular child may be angry about what seems to be an unfair turn of events.
Accept their feelings: Parents should try not to talk their children out of how they feel or provide remedies that inadvertently teach children to ignore their authentic selves. Giving hugs and saying, “I know that it hurts,” is often the best things to do. It is tying for a parent to see their child endure painful feelings, but supporting them through such feelings rather than suppressing them will enable them to build emotional strengths.
Individualized loss: Every child, even different children in the same family, loves their pet in different ways and for different reasons. Parents should talk individually with each child about what the pet meant to them and find ways for them to reminisce. In doing so, parents are helping their children to learn to be more mindful about what a loved one means to them and why they love, which will strengthen their ability to form healthy relationships and to relinquish them when necessary.
Parents can reinforce their children’s understanding that each relationship is unique by not quickly replacing a pet. A quick replacement can foster a sense that loved ones are interchangeable. It is better to provide at least a few months during which children can grow in their capacity to bear and master loss rather than becoming immersed in the excitement of a new pet.
Activity: We think it is important for children to be able to respond actively to life’s trials. Their sense of well-being is strengthened when they recognize that they are not helpless in the face of adversity, large or small, and especially when they participate in figuring out and carrying out the actions. Talking and reminiscing is the simplest way to be active.
After a pet’s death, children can make a memory scrapbook or compose a poem. If there is a gravesite, they can visit and leave something.
It will probably be best parents discuss a pet’s impending death with their children, if there is indeed a process rather than a special event, especially if the choice has been made to euthanize a dog or cat. In that case, a child might choose to go with his or her parents to the vet. Children’s ability to make choices and to feel a part of the process will be in their best interests — unless their parents felt it would be too much for them.
Learning about death: When a pet dies, children may or may not have encountered death before in a personally meaningful way. In either case, parents can help their children begin to develop some “mental muscles” for one of life’s most challenging aspects. Every family has its own particular way of explaining death, ranging from humanistic to religious explanations. As parents explain their beliefs, we encourage parents to offer only the explanations and comfort that they truly believe. For example, some families say that their pet is in pet heaven. We encourage parents to offer such a view only if they believe it. Otherwise, they are offering as truth what they think is a tale to decrease children’s pain.
Not all myths parents present as truth to children are problems. The Santa Claus story is culturally endorsed and prolongs a childhood magical feeling, quite different from a myth constructed by a family to avoid uncomfortable feelings.
Parents will have to explain death in comparison with life. Children two and over are old enough for parents to explain that their pet’s death means that she will never move, think or feel again. It is best not to compare death with sleep because it is inaccurate and the comparison also leads some children to develop anxieties about sleep.
Whatever parents believe about an afterlife, it will be helpful to explain about bodily decomposition or cremation and the cycle of life. A pet will continue living in their memories and by nourishing plants and animals. One resource about the life cycle parents may find helpful with younger children is The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia.
A family’s impending loss will be felt individually, and children will have an opportunity to grow as individuals. It also is a family loss and an opportunity for a family to grow closer.
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