The death of a beloved pet is a difficult time for anyone. For a child, the grief is often accompanied by a lack of understanding, a sense of guilt or even a fear of losing others they love. While older children have an understanding of death, losing a pet may be the first personal experience they have with it. Your reactions, emotions and words will guide and influence your child’s response to this loss.
Tell your child the truth of what is happening with your pet. Saying Fido went to live on a farm or that Fluffy ran away still leaves your child with a sense of loss and can only cause mistrust of you if she learns the truth. Talk to your child one-on-one in a safe, comfortable place. If you have to euthanize your dog or cat, explain to your child that her pet is ill or injured and the kindest thing to do is prevent more pain. If your pet has died suddenly, explain what happened. Let your child’s questions guide how much you tell her. Avoid using the euphemism of putting your pet “to sleep.” Children’s literal minds may attribute fear to the idea of sleeping.
Consider the Age
How much information you give your child is dependent on her age. Two and 3-year-olds lack an understanding of death, but will follow your lead emotionally. Show reasonable grief openly. Kids from 4 to 6 may have an idea of death, but not its permanence. Reassurance that her pet’s death was not her fault and expressing loss through drawing and stories helps at this age. A pet’s death may provoke a lot of questions in children between ages 7 and 9. Honesty and reassurance are again crucial; children at this age may understand the concept that pets do not live as long as humans. At 10 and 11, kids begin reacting like adults to a pet’s death.
Include Your Child
Allow your child to say goodbye before putting her pet down, even letting her be there if she’s mature enough. Plan a memorial with her: plant a tree in the yard; create a garden stone to honor the pet; make a scrapbook of photos and happy memories. Discuss with her where to scatter the ashes. A pet is often a friend and companion to your child. Just as she is involved in caring for her pet in life, give her a place in remembering him in death.
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