How To Talk About Pet Loss With Your Child
When I first graduated from college I worked as a nanny for a psychologist. One day she shared with me that their family goldfish had died. We schemed for nearly 20 minutes of what we would say to her daughter, as this was her first experience with death, and we thought it could be an excellent teaching moment.
We pulled her away from her playing to explain that the fish had died. We told her we could help her have a funeral if she wanted, and we could find a box (casket) to bury the fish so she could say her goodbyes. We went into detail about what a casket was and what a funeral was in minute detail. After our monologue we stopped and asked if she had any questions, after a slight pause she asked “Can’t we just flush it?”
Keeping Things Simple
This was a lesson that I use to this day to keep things simple, and to be where your audience is. Sometimes as parents we try to overcompensate for our own fears and make situations more challenging than they need to be. I have included some tips of how to talk to your children about pet loss.
- Tell the child about the death then pause, ask them what they think that means before moving on with further explanations. This will help guide you as to what questions they may have or if that is enough information for the moment. Children process grief differently so they may only need a small amount of information initially but may come back to you several times after this to ask more questions as they process the information.
- Remember to express your own grief, reassure your child that many different feelings are OK. Be sure to allow children to express their feelings. If the child is too young to express themselves verbally, giving them crayons and paper or modeling clay can be a great way allow them to express their grief.
- Avoid using terms or clichés such as:
- Fluffy “went to sleep” could instigate fears of going to bed and of not being able to wake up
- “God has taken” the pet could create conflicts in the child who could become angry at a higher power for the pet being sick or dying, or for “taking” the pet from them
- Be honest, keeping a death from a child can cause increased anxiety. Children are intuitive and can sense is something is wrong, when the death isn’t explained they make up their own explanation of the truth, and this is often much worse than the reality of what occurred.
- Children are capable of understanding in their own way that life must end for all living things. Support their grief by acknowledging their pain. The death of a pet can be an opportunity for a child to learn that adult caretakers can be relied upon to extend comfort and reassurance through honest communication.
Developmental Understandings of Death
Two- and three-year olds:
- Often consider death as sleeping
- Tell them the pet has died and will not return
- Reassure children that the pet’s failure to return is unrelated to anything the child may have said or done (magical thinking)
- A child at this age will readily accept another pet in the place of a loved one
Four-, five-, and six-year olds:
- These children have some understanding of death but also a hope for continued living (a pet may continue to eat, play and breathe although deceased)
- They feel any anger that they had towards the pet may make them responsible for the pet’s death (I hated feeding him everyday)
- Some children may fear that death is contagious and could begin to fear their own death or worry about the safety of their parents
- May see changes in bladder/bowels, eating and sleeping
- Several brief discussions about the death are more productive than one- or two-prolonged discussions
Seven-, eight-, and nine-year olds
- These children have an understanding that death is real and irreversible
- There is less concern that they or their parents will die as a result of their pet loss but it still may be a concern
- May ask about death and its implications (Will we be able to get another pet?)
- Expressions of grief may include: somatic concerns, learning challenges, aggression, antisocial behavior, may take place weeks or months after the loss
- These children react similar to teens
- May experience denial which can take the form of lack of emotional display so they could be experiencing the grief without outwards manifestations
Some Resources …
- Petloss.com is a gentle and compassionate website for pet lovers who are grieving the death or an illness of a pet. They have a Pet Loss Candle Ceremony every week.
- Often your veterinarian has, or knows of a local pet loss group
- Children’s Pet Loss Books:
- Badgers Parting Gifts (children) by Susan Varley
- Lifetimes by Brian Mellonie & Robert Ingpen
- The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (children) by Judith Viorst