As a pet owner, you’ll know how quickly animals become treasured members of the family; whether you’ve got a cat, dog, bird, or fish, there’s a good chance that you’re incredibly attached to that pet and dread the day something happens to them. Imagine, then, that you’re a child attempting to come to terms with such a loss. Your family’s pets are likely to be the very first confidants, best friends, and co-conspirators that your child ever has, and the animal’s passing is likely to be their very first experience of death and grief. Would you know what to say, or how to prepare your child for the emotions that they’re likely to face?
Preparing for loss
First and foremost, you need to know that there’s nothing wrong with discussing death with your children, particularly if your pet is getting old or has been ill. Your child is developing and maturing every day, as is their ability to understand complex emotions and circumstances. Be sure to be the one to guide your child through the events that will follow. It can be tempting to allow a teacher, family member, or siblings to have such talks with them, but the environment of comfort and trust must be established from the beginning. Find a quiet moment when your child is showing an interest in engaging you in conversation and discuss the fact that your pet cannot be with you forever, and that there will come a time when the family has to say goodbye. Speak honestly and encourage your child to ask questions; they will find such openness a huge help once your pet has passed.
Experiencing a sudden loss
Sometimes the loss of a pet, and our ability to prepare our children, is taken out of our control; accidents and sudden illnesses can and do strike, and it’s important to know how to handle such a loss – particularly when it comes to explaining events to a child. At times like this, your child will be hit by grief they don’t understand, and it may be very difficult at first to explain what has happened and why. Be prepared for questions, for accusations of blame, or feelings of guilt, and a period when nothing you can say will make it all better, before your child is able to talk to you about what they’re feeling. The chances are your family will be in shock; encourage each member of your family to share memories, stories, and pictures that will dull the blow you’ve been dealt.
Saying goodbye to a beloved pet
You may be worried that asking your child to say goodbye to a beloved pet will cause distress, but that final declaration of love, and recognition of loss, will be absolutely vital for their healing. Allowing your child to play an active role in saying goodbye will not only allow them to understand what has happened, but also create a healthy attitude towards future losses that they will no doubt encounter. A funeral or pet cremation service is a lovely way to provide closure for your child, as well as enabling your family to come together to celebrate the life of your pet and remember the memories that you’ve made together. Ask your child to write a letter, sing a song, or paint a picture of their pet for a memorial, and consult them when it comes to choosing an area in which to scatter ashes or bury your pet; not only will your child feel a part of the service, but they will also be able to associate their feelings with what’s happening far better than if they’re protected to the point of being left in the dark. Finally, don’t be tempted to underestimate your child, or their capacity to understand what’s going on. Using simple language, including words such as “dead”, “death”, and “dying”, will be far less confusing than euphemisms such as “sleeping”, and will allow your child to come to terms with their loss in a less trivial way.
Choosing a new pet
When is the right time to choose a new pet? While it can be tempting to rush out and rehome a new animal so that a sudden loss is felt less harshly, it’s essential to remember that grief is an important part of growing up; you won’t want your child to be sad, but taking away their right to say goodbye, and their ability to process their emotions and understand what’s happened, will cause more harm than good. It’s completely healthy for your child to explore the way they’re feeling in such a way, and while a new pet can aid the healing process, you must wait until everyone, including your child, is ready to welcome a new family member.
While it’s always a good idea to encourage your child to focus on other things, including hobbies, heading out and about together, and quality family time, it’s also wise to listen; don’t be tempted to dissuade your child from talking about their pet and the emotions they’re experiencing as this may discourage them from expressing themselves later in life. Above all, be guided by your child, and talk about grief and the healing process at a time and pace that suits them. Your child may need time before they’re ready to discuss what’s happened, or they may have questions right away; there is no right or wrong way to handle the loss of a pet, as long as your child’s interests are taken into consideration.