Explaining the death of a loved one or even the concept of dying to a child is one of the toughest things you will ever do. When it comes to pet loss, children often perceive in their mind that a pet will be around for as long as the child is. How can you comfort them, and explain in a way that they understand? This may in fact be the first encounter with death of any kind for a child, so it should be handled in the right manner.
There are many considerations; in dealing with losing a pet, children of different age groups should be handled differently. Honesty is always the best policy; you never want to make the child believe that your family pet simply wandered off, or that they “went to sleep” and didn’t wake up. If a child is 10 or 11 years old, they often already understand that every living thing dies at some point. Children of different ages also perceive the death of a pet differently. For example:
A very young child, perhaps 3 or 4 years old, knows that the pet is a playmate. When the pet dies, she will most likely miss it for a time, but may not experience much sadness or trauma like an older child would. Children who are old enough to take care of feeding or walking a pet may experience guilt feelings. In their mind, they may believe that they did something that caused the animal to become sick or die. This is particularly true if the child ever had thoughts such as wishing they didn’t have to take care of the pet.
With pet loss, children should understand that you are sad as well. Never try to hide your emotions; be honest and open. If you bury your pet or have him cremated, you may want to create a special memorial or “place” in the backyard where the child can visit him. Explain to your child that time will heal their sadness and pain, and that one day they will have happy memories of their pet. One mistake many parents make is getting a new pet almost immediately. Don’t try to replace a pet your family loved deeply too soon. Let your child grieve that pet, who was a special member of your family.
Children are extremely resilient and adaptable. In fact, a young child will get over a devastating or sad experience like the loss of a pet quicker than most adults. It is a good idea to explain death and dying to your children, in a gentle way. When you lose a pet, it is important that children know what really happened, and that their pet is not in some magical place. Honesty is always best; talk with your children openly, and tell them it is okay to feel sad or to cry. This is sometimes the quickest way for a child to begin the healing process.