Pet loss is incredibly hard for all of us, and particularly if the pet is a dog or a cat who can truly become a part of the family. No one though is going to feel this loss quite like any children in your family and for them this will be an incredibly upsetting experience and one that they won’t necessarily fully understand. As a parent it’s unfortunately your job to break the news and to let them know that their friend and pet is gone and to help them overcome the trauma. Here we will look at some tips on how to do that effectively and how to lessen the blow.
First of all it is important that you are honest. It can be very tempting to say something along the lines of ‘he had to be sent away’ but death is a part of life that they will eventually have to learn and this is a good opportunity for them to start to grasp the concept. At the same time if they know you’re lying to them then that will only add to their upset and it will mean that they have lost faith in you as well as lost their pet. Children are highly sensitive and even if you tell them that everything is fine they are going to pick up on a sense of sadness and loss in the home, and if they don’t understand this it can be distressing. They have a right to grieve too and you should never make assumptions about your child’s attention or about how much they do or don’t know. Even if they don’t guess themselves, then the other children at school will often be cruel and tell them that their pet has died and this will be a much worse way to find out. Then there’s the fact that if they do believe you, they’ll wonder why you had them sent away and will blame you for the fact their pet is not there any more.
Talking to your child honestly also allows you to do something else which is to explain to them what happened and why it happened. This is important too, because if this is your child’s first encounter with death then this can be a very scary and upsetting time that causes them to face their own mortality. If you don’t explain what happened in real terms that they can understand then they might well think that they are in danger too, that they caught an illness off of their dog for instance or that they might go to sleep and no wake up either. Of course take their age into account, but don’t hide behind euphemisms and gloss over things or you might do more damage than good.
In order to help your child as much as you can and as much as you need to, you need to understand just how important their pet was likely to have been to them. If you have ever grown up with a pet then you will know this already, but if you have not then you need to bear in mind that your child may not even remember their life without their pet. A child can form a relationship with an animal – particularly a dog – that is more like a brother or sister or a best friend. When they came home from school they will have played with their dog whether they had had a good day or a bad day, and when they went through bad times then they will have cuddled their pet and felt safe. When you shouted at them and took them to their room, their pet will have been there for them and will have still been happy to see them. When they felt ill the pet will have known and sat on the bed with them. When they were very young they’ll have played games with their dog – dressing them up or going on missions and adventures together – and the dog will have felt just as warmly back to them. Losing this kind of companionship is something that is incredibly hard for a child and particularly as they will have seen their pet every day. Life won’t seem the same and the house will be quieter and colder. Your child needs you to understand how serious this is, and they need you to show the same sadness and sense of loss that they feel for what may well have been genuinely their best friend. Never use the term ‘only a dog’ and avoid anyone else who might.
Let Them Open Up
It’s important that you help your child to express themselves and at the same time this can help you to get a better idea of what they’re going through and what their beliefs are surrounding what has happened. Let your child cry as much as they need to and give them some space – make sure they’re comfortable and bring them lots of water but don’t tell them to ‘pull themselves together’ or to ‘stop being silly’ as this will be hurtful for them and can result in repressed sadness that can affect them during their daily activities. If they need it then let them have a day off school – failing to do so will only mean that they end up crying in class and getting sent home and/or teased by their class mates. If they seem to be having difficulties expressing themselves and opening up, then get them to write a letter to their pet telling them how much they loved them and how they helped them to get through their childhood – this can be a great form of catharsis and can help them to overcome that feeling of not having been able to say goodbye.
One strategy used by some counselors and therapists is to ask them to describe where they think their pet is now. Doing this can help the counselor (or in this case you) to understand their beliefs about death. If there is anything frightening about this image or disquieting then you can address it and help put their mind at rest and explain to them your views of the afterlife. If you’re an atheist then don’t worry, you can still be perfectly honest with your child – just tell them that no one knows what happens after death.
You need to be there for your child and you need to be their rock. This is so important at a time like this because they will be experiencing change which can leave them feeling unsafe and scared – what else might change in their life? If you can show them that you are always going to be there for them then that is at least some concern.
However it’s a mistake to think that that means that you can’t show emotion – and it’s important that you show them and let them know how sad you are about the loss of their pet too. This shows to them that you are sympathetic and that you understand, and it lets them know that it’s okay for them to be sad and for them to show it (whereas otherwise they might try to be ‘like you’ by not letting their sadness out). At the same time they need to know that you loved their pet too, because it will add to their happy memories and help them to feel more at ease.
Honor and Immortalize
When you lose someone – whether they’re human or animal – this is an incredibly painful and upsetting time. Largely this is upsetting from a ‘selfish’ point of view; that is that we’re upset because we know we’ll never get to see them again. While this is true though, it is also true that in many ways the deceased live on in those they leave behind, and this is something that you can teach your children now.
Ask your children to think about what it was about their pet that they loved most. Was it the fact that they never judged? The fact that they were always so pleased to see them? Or that they had such a lust for life? Now tell your children to think of this aspect as they go about their own lives and to bring that to their own behavior. This way they will be honoring their pet, and they will be keeping their spirit alive every day.
Likewise there are other ways to keep your pet’s memory alive. One is to make a photo album of the pet and to use this to capture and maintain all of your happiest memories of them. Another strategy is to make a grave or some kind of shrine for your pet where your children can plant and water flowers.
While it is important to let your children grieve and to give them time and space to recover and to work through their feelings, it is also important to make sure that they start to move on eventually and that you help them to get back to everyday life. Crying uncontrollably can be exhausting and it can place a strain on your child’s immune system, so if they have been crying for a while then cheer them up with distractions – put a good film on, or get them to go outside for a walk. Especially if it’s nice weather, going outside and getting some sun is a great way for them to feel a bit normal again. Another option is to invite one of their friends around and this will help them to joke again and move on.
You should not suggest ‘replacing’ their pet at any point and this is a very hurtful and insensitive way to phrase the matter. However, after a certain point it will nevertheless be appropriate to start moving on and your child will be ready to let a new pet into their life. If you’re happy with them having a new pet, then wait a few months and introduce a new friend to them.