5 STEPS TO HELP YOUR CHILD HANDLE THE DEATH OF A PET
Growing up with a pet you might remember that very special friend that you had. It was the friend that never teased you or mocked you. He was your friend that you could share all your feelings and secrets with. Those of us who remember this, will then also remember how devastating it was when we lost our dear friend.
The death of a pet in the Family can be very dramatic for a child. It is usually a child’s first experience with death. One of the most difficult parts of losing a pet, might be to break the news to your child.
Joshua Russell, an assistant professor of environmental science at Canisius College in Buffalo, who has studied the effects of pet loss in children, explained that for many children, pets are more than just animals. “Many kids describe their pets as siblings or best friends with whom they have strong connections,” he said.
In a study of 12 children ages 6 to 13 who had lost a pet Dr. Russell found that even years after the pet’s death, some children still described the loss as “the worst day of their lives.” He also discovered that children come up with unique ways to rationalize their pet’s passing and that the way a pet dies influences how children grieve.
Here are 5 steps to help your child handle the death of a pet:
1 – TELL YOU CHILD SOONER THAN LATER
- People tend to avoid telling their children about the death of a pet right away because of the sensitive nature of the conversation. Should a pet dies, it is best to tell your child as soon as possible, avoiding the conversation might make your child feel betrayed.
- Like adults, children more readily accept their pet’s death when it is expected in some way. Children seems to know that a fish or hamster, for instance, would not live as long as a dog or cat. If an animal is terminally ill, parents can help prepare the child by talking about the impending loss, as well as the feelings of sadness it will evoke.
- Explaining the death or expected death of a pet should also be age specific. Children of different ages may react differently to a pet’s death. In addition, children of different ages tend to have different types of relationships with a pet. Parents are faced not only with trying to soothe the child’s grief over the disappearance of a friend, but with trying to explain the concept of death.
- Unfortunately Television, the main source of children’s information, is little help at all, when cartoon characters die or end of one season, they can be miraculously resurrected at the beginning of the next season.
- Communication is the key in explaining to your child that death is permanent. Make sure the child understands what dying or death means. Explain that the pets body stopped working. It is important that the child understands that the pet is dead and will never come back again.
2 – BE HONEST
- It is important to be honest with your child. Avoid using phrases like “put to sleep” and “went away”, because these expressions may confuse your child. Using “went to sleep” in connection with death, a child may develop a fear of going to sleep. The child might become afraid that, like his pet, he won’t wake up when he goes to sleep.
- Also using phrases like the pet was so sick or so badly injured that it went to sleep or went to heaven, the child may fear that this may happen to him if he becomes sick or injured. Children will eventually learn the truth, and lying can breed resentment and destroy trust between parent and child. Later in life, when the child learns the truth, they’ll wonder what else the parent lied about.
- “Going to sleep” seems to be our most common euphemism for death. He will probably hear it from another child, another adult, or perhaps a veterinarian. You will have to explain to your child, although people use the term, they only use it because the pet looks so peaceful, and that the pet is not really sleeping. You will need to expand your explanation and point out death is permanent. You may also wish to explain that dogs and cats get old much faster than humans do, and that 15 years for a pet is a long life while 15 years for a child is a very short time.
- Another saying like God came to take the pet away. The child may resent God, and fear who might be next. Tell your child in a direct manner that your pet has died and although you exhausted all avenues, that there was nothing that could be done to save his life.
- Explanation should also be age specific. With very young children, do not share any details with your child that may be traumatic. For example, do not describe the exact cause of your pet’s death to your child. For instance if the pet was hit by a car and the car run over the pet’s head, there is no need to explain the incident in details.
- Explain euthanasia only if your child is old enough to understand.The concept of euthanasia might be difficult for very young children (five or younger) to understand. Older children might have an easier time understanding, but you may have to answer some difficult questions as well. For example, your child may ask if euthanasia is like killing the animal. Do your best to provide honest answers to your child, but do not go into too much detail to avoid upsetting your child.
- When a pet is sick or dying, spend time talking with your child about his/her feelings. If possible, it is helpful to have the child say goodbye before the pet dies. Let your child know it is normal to miss pets after they die and encourage the youngster to come to you with questions or for reassurance and comfort.
- If your pet is sick and you know that it is bound to die in the near future, you will do your child more good by preparing him for this inevitable tragedy than by trying to conceal the pet’s condition. This way, your child will be able to observe the pet’s illness and develop a better understanding of the dying process. Even if you think your child’s too young to understand death, be honest and straightforward whenever you talk about what happened to your pet.
3 – COMFORT YOUR CHILD
- Prepare for your child’s reaction.Your child’s reaction may vary depending on his or her age and prior experiences with death. For example, a young child may be very sad and then seem fine a few minutes later, while a teenager may respond with anger and storm off.
- Be available to let your child discuss his/her feelings about what happened. Show your own feelings. This tells the child that the pet was special and that they are not grieving alone. You can also encourage your child to open up, which can help the healing process.
- It’s best not to make assumptions about what your child is or isn’t feeling, does or doesn’t understand, or his beliefs about what has happened to his pet. Kids get input from many sources beyond their parents.
- Keep in mind that people respond to death in a variety of different ways. Even if your Child seems fine, he or she may be working through a wide range of confusing emotions.
- Talk to your child about the death in an open, honest manner, and share your own feelings as a way of encouraging him to share his. Keep the lines of communication open and you’ll likely discover either your youngster has a good understanding of what has happened, or he’s harboring some misconceptions you can clear up for him.
- According to grief experts, one of the most important things you can do when your family loses a beloved pet is to avoid telling your child how he should feel.
- Children should not be criticized for crying or told to be ‘strong.’
- You can help your youngster grieve in a productive way by being open about your own sense of sadness and loss. Be honest about how you’re feeling and don’t try to hide your emotions.
- Do take care not to frighten your child with an out-of-control expression of grief. Crying is fine. Wailing, screaming or other very dramatic displays of emotion are not appropriate in front of a child who views you as their safe harbor. Share in your child’s sadness do not overwhelm it with your own. Be your youngster’s protector, even during periods of intense sorrow.
- Grief is a process, not an event. It takes time to work through the process. The good news is the vast majority of kids will adjust in a normal, healthy way to the loss of a pet if the parents’ approach is gentle, simple and honest.
- Tell your child’s teachers about the loss, so they will understand why your child is behaving differently.
4 -LISTEN TO YOUR CHILD, ANSWER QUESTIONS
- Make sure that your child knows that you are willing to listen if he or she wants to talk. Your child may want to talk right away, in a few days, or not at all. If your child decides that he or she wants to talk, give your full attention. Marks syas it is also important for parents to follow their child’s lead. “If they are asking about the details of the pet’s death, it’s a sign that they want to talk about it,” she said. “They are looking for your comfort.”
- Young children are very concrete in their thinking, and perceive the world through their senses. They may miss different things about your pet than you would expect, such as smell, sound, or tactile sensations. Children may ask questions repetitively. Do not feel that you need to say more each time; their searching is part of the grieving process. Simply answer the questions, repeatedly if needed. If they want to know more, they will ask. You can tell if a child is really listening or just appearing to listen for your benefit (e.g., fidgeting, little eye contact).
- Allow your child to express his or her feelings while you listen. Offer a shoulder to cry on if your child begins to cry. Reassure your child that these emotions are difficult now, but they will get better over time.
- After you have finished talking, give your child a hug. Your child will most likely have lots of questions about the death of a pet, especially if this is your child’s first experience with death. Do your best to answer these questions, but keep in mind that it is okay to say “I don’t know.” For example, if your child asks questions about the afterlife of animals, you may choose to leave this more open ended and say, “I’m not sure.” You can explain what some people believe, and if you’re undecided about what happens, you can tell this to your child.
- Some questions you should answer in a definite, clear way. For example, if your child asks whether or not the pet suffered when he died, then you should be honest, but aim to comfort your child. You might say something like, “Yes, he was in pain when he went to see the veterinarian, but the veterinarian gave him some medicine to help the pain go away before he died.”
5 – REMEMBER THE PET
- Planning a ritual whether a backyard funeral or the planting of a tree as a memorial, can be especially helpful in the healing process. The ceremony acknowledges the loss while also honoring the special relationship your child had with her pet.
- Have a special ceremony to bury your pet or scatter the ashes.The process of burying or scattering a pet’s ashes can be a good way to help your child say goodbye ad grieve. Plan a special ceremony to honor the life of your pet. You might even ask your child to help you plan the ceremony, if you think that he or she would like to do so.
- Your child may also like the idea of planting a special tree or flower in the backyard to honor your pet. Ask your child to help you pick out a tree or flower to plant. Then, choose a spot together and plant the tree or flower in your pet’s honor.
- Offering choices when a pet dies is helpful to children. They can be offered choices about whether to bury or cremate, whether they want to be present at the burial or after, if there are any certain objects they would like to put in the grave.
- Encourage your child to show his/her feelings by talking or writing about the fun times they had with their pet. Your child might also find it helpful to draw a picture of the deceased pet or to write a letter to the pet that expresses how he or she feels. Ask your child if either of these activities sound appealing and offer your support. You can guide your child through the process by sitting nearby and offering support if he or she wants advice on what to draw or what to say in the letter.
- Parents often want to ease their child’s hurt by rushing out and buying another pet, this is a mistake. The last thing you want to do is convey the impression that the pet – a family member – is replaceable. Wait until the child expresses an interest in another pet.
- If your child shows problematic reactions to loss of a pet (e.g., the manifestations described above go on for more than 2-4 weeks), you may wish to consider consulting your primary care physician for a referral to a licensed psychologist or family therapist for guidance.
- Local shelters often hold workshops and support groups to help people after pet loss. Contact your local shelter for information. There are also a number of organizations dedicated to helping people cope around the country. To find one in your state, visit the Delta Society Web page at www.deltasociety.org/dsn701.htm
Guide your child with love, through the most difficult part of life he is facing, death.