From the fish they win at the fair to the puppy on their Christmas list, pets occupy such a special place in the hearts of children. The bond between pet and child is often immediate, unbreakable, and fiercely loyal. Sadly, they are also often the relationships in which our children first experience death and grief.
As parents, navigating through grief can be scary. We want our children to be happy and sometimes aren’t sure how to handle their sadness. Rest assured that even in the most difficult times, you can be a strong support for your children. Here are a few tips on helping children grieve the loss of a pet:
• Do tell your child in person, as soon as possible. Ideally, you’ll want to provide a safe place (i.e. no electronics, family only in attendance) with an unscheduled amount of time for them to feel the weight of the news and begin processing their emotions with you.
• Do let your child know that the pet and the loss of him matters to you, too.The loss of a pet that you’ve had before your child was born may be especially difficult for you. The bulk of that grief you’ll share with your adult family and friends; however, it’s ok to let your child see you cry for your beloved friend. If the pet was one that your child had for a couple of weeks, it may be tempting to treat it as insignificant; however, to a young child, a few weeks can feel like a lifetime. Maybe you could communicate something the pet did that brought you joy (ex. “I’ll really miss Fish. I remember how much fun he had swimming in his bowl. It always made me smile.”). Valuing the pet will help your child feel free to express the value they saw in him too without fear of being dismissed.
• Do use the word “died.” Often grownups use polite terms for death like “passed” or “no longer with us.” While this is comforting for adults, it may be confusing for a younger child. They may need more concrete explanations like the fish’s “heart has stopped beating.” For pets who have been ill, it may be helpful to explain to your child that while their pet has died, he no longer feels pain from his illness or injury. This conversation may bring up a lot of questions about death. If these questions are difficult to answer, give yourself permission to think them through. You might say something like, “I need some time to think about that a little more because such a good question deserves a thoughtful answer.” Be sure to follow up with an answer for your child! Don’t be afraid to reach out to your pastor or a trusted counselor for more help on navigating these questions.
• Do tell the truth about what happened.While the level of detail will change depending on the age of the child, the truth of how the death occurred is important in building the narrative the child needs to make sense of what happened. Gently telling the truth also establishes you as a trustworthy grief partner that your child can depend on if they have more questions or more feelings to share.
• Don’t expect your child’s grief to look like yours. For example, children may not talk about their grief but may act it out through play or express it creatively through drawing or painting. You can help in this way by allowing your child to grieve without expectations. They may seem indifferent initially but later need time to talk things through. All of these expressions are okay, which leads us to the next point…
• Do let them know that they may have lots of different feelings, their feelings can change, and that all their feelings are okay and can be shared with you. It’s important for children to know that just because one conversation is over, it doesn’t mean the topic is off limits. With younger children who like to watch movies or play games, the analogy of “putting the conversation on pause” may help them understand that while you have moved on to another topic or activity, they can “press play” on the conversation again whenever they want. It may be good to check in with your child a few times the first several weeks after the loss of a pet. Perhaps while in the car, you may say something like, “I just wanted to check in and see if you had any more questions or feelings to share about Fish.” Even if your child doesn’t express any questions or feelings right then, it may provide comfort to them to know that the conversation is still open for discussion.
• Finally, work with your child to explore ways to memorialize your pet. Maybe a scrapbook of photos and stories, or a frame your child can paint that will hold a meaningful photo of the two of them will be helpful. Any object or ritual that helps your child remember their pet fondly will be a wonderful tribute to their friend.
Pets are some of our very first friends, and it can be so hard to say goodbye to them. It can be harder still to help our children say goodbye.
If you notice that your child is having difficulty processing their grief, seems “stuck” in their sadness, seems to be losing pleasure in activities that they once found enjoyable, and/or is having trouble sleeping for more than a couple of weeks, it may be time to reach out to a counselor.
Ashley G. Smith, MAMFT, LPC-S, is a counselor in private practice with Madison Counseling where she works primarily with children, parents and couples. Ashley can be contacted by phone at 769-231-9914 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Well-Being reprinted this article with permission by Madison Counseling PLLC, Counseling Blog. It was posted September 11, 2018 at www.madisoncounseling.org.