Death. It’s something that we hope we can shelter our kids from for as long as possible. However, it is inevitable that at some point it will effect our children. And more often than not, it is through the loss of a pet. We experienced this first hand earlier this week when J-Man’s hamster, Coconut, died during the night. The next morning, as I was getting ready, J-Man can into the room crying frantically and telling me that there was something wrong with Coconut. Now, the hamster liked to play dead even when she was alive when she didn’t want J-Man messing with her so I told him to finish getting ready and I’d be up to check in just a few minutes. As soon as I went into his room, I knew that Coconut was no longer with us. She was turned on her back and not in the normal “sleeping” position. And in that moment, a sick feeling hit me as I looked at J-Man’s hopeful face and knew that I was going to have to tell him the truth. Here are few tips on how to make that truth easier for your child to understand and accept.
As a parent, it’s in our nature to try to keep things from our children that will cause them pain. However, the death of a pet may be your child’s first dealings with losing something or someone they care about and it’s super important that you set up realistic ideas of death. Now, this is not to say that you should be morbid. However, depending on the age of your child, you should make sure you are as honest as is appropriate. Explain that death is a part of life and that it is permanent. Unless your child is small, don’t go with the “Fido just went to sleep for a while.” Explain that their pet has passed away and that they will not be coming back but that your child was a good pet parent while they were alive and that it’s OK to be sad. You may have to explain several times for your child to truly understand. Be calm and patient and answer any questions your child may have to the best of your ability.
Let Your Child Grieve
Your child will need to have some closure on the loss of their pet. Allow them to grieve. As a family, talk about good memories of the pet and why it was a special part of your family. Having a pet funeral is a great way to help your child understand what is going on as well as give them a purposeful way to honor their lost pet. It will also give your child a place to physically visit their pet even when they are no longer alive. Consider burying the pet some place special and then planting a special pant on top of it. Make it your child’s responsibility to care for the plant. This will help to both honor the pet and give your child a way to say goodbye anytime they want to.
Get Help Explaining
Sometimes we need a little help explaining, especially if we are grieving ourselves. Thankfully, there are some fabulous resources out there to help a child deal with the death of a pet. Check out Will I See My Pet in Heaven or When a Pet Dies: A Healing Handbook for Kids. These books will help you explain some of the broader aspects of death that may be difficult for your child to grasp. Read through the books with them and allow them to ask questions along the way. They are likely trying to process the loss and hearing stories of other children who have gone through it may help them not feel so along.
Be Patient and Caring
It can often be hard for us as parents to really allow our child to feel the way they feel. We want to make it better, fix it and put it behind us. And often with a pet, we feel that the grief process should be short and we should be able to move on. For those of us who have lost human loved ones, it may even seems trivial in many cases. But for your child it is not. The loss of a pet is a traumatic for them as the loss of a loved one for us. So, take a step back and don’t think like an adult! Instead, pull out your inner child and remember that loss of your first pet and then open your heart to your child. Let them cry. Let them be angry. Let them work through their own process without trying to speed it along or trivialize it.
Frame a Pic of Your Lost Pet
Go out and buy a wooden picture frame and allow your child to decorate it. Put a picture of your child and the pet into the frame and then hang it some place special. Let your child know that your pet will not be forgotten but that it’s OK to be happy again and to move on with life – even if you never stop missing your pet. Then, encourage your child to share one special memory each time they look at the picture. In no time at all, your child will be so wrapped up in remembering all the good things that it will make their pain of the pet’s loss easier to deal with.
From a goldfish to a dog, losing a pet is always hard for a child. Being understanding and patient and listening to your child’s fears and pain is essential to helping them learn the correct way to grieve and heal. So remember to sit down, listen up and take the time to work through death with your child in order to give them the foundation that will allow them to grieve healthily the rest of their life.