Perhaps the toughest aspect of losing a pet is worrying about how your kids will take the news. Beyond delivering the bad news itself, you will also need to help them through the grieving process. Losing a pet is often a first experience of death for young children, and it can be hard to know where to start when helping them cope with the loss.
Here’s a rundown of how to help your children get through the passing of their little companion.
Delivering the news
Children’s understanding of death varies hugely depending on their age. Younger children cannot grasp the permanent nature of death, while slightly older ones may not realize that it is a natural process that is nobody’s fault. Instead, they may rationalize it by blaming themselves or others.
The first thing to do is try to understand how your child views death. With very young children, it is especially important to be clear that their pet will not be coming back.
Be forthright. Don’t lie, skirt the issue, or offer incomplete explanations of what has happened to their friend. While it’s not necessary to go into gruesome details, it is okay to explain that a vet helped them be at peace after suffering or that an accident happened and they didn’t feel any pain.
The key is to be brief, compassionate, and focus on language that paints a picture of a natural and peaceful process. Finally, ask if they understand, answer any questions briefly but honestly, and make sure they know you’re there to help them through it.
Helping them grieve
In cases of a sudden death, it is not possible for your children to say goodbye to their pet directly. It is, however, possible for them to say a symbolic farewell, perhaps by drawing a picture or making a piece of jewelry with their pet’s name on it. Helping your kids create something allows them to remember the happy times they had with their pet and create something physical to help them “say goodbye”.
In times of sadness, they can turn to the reminder they have created, helping them feel like their pet lives on in spirit.
Memorializing your pet
Finally, there will come a time for you to decide what to do with your pet’s earthly remains. Increasingly, owners are choosing pet cremation, especially if they have young children. That’s because having ash remains can be a physical prop to help explain the circle of life (“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”).
Involving your children in the scattering of ashes can help them grieve, as long as they are of an appropriate age to understand the symbolism. Make sure you ask what they are comfortable doing in terms of a memorial. There are several other ways your kids can remember their pet, including writing a song about them, planting a tree, sharing stories in a favorite spot in the yard, or simply walking to a place that holds special importance, like a favorite walking trail.