Pets are a big part of many children’s lives. The longer they live with them, the greater the bond that they build. Some children are born into families that already own a pet, while conversely many children first encounter a pet soon after its own birth. In either case, the level of attachment that develops between the child and the pet is one of the strongest that they will develop. Because pets are also where many children first learn about responsibility and caring for other living things, the death of a pet can hit them very hard. Both children and adults will keenly feel the death of a family pet. For children, however, such an event represents the best way to acquaint them with the feeling of loss that arises from a death. Fortunately, there are a number of things that you can do to make this process easier for your child, and perhaps even for yourself.
Preparing for Death
If your animal is very ill and is expected to die it is usually a good idea to inform your children about this before it occurs. This will make things much easier for them to process and will help prepare them if there is a reasonable chance that the pet will need to be euthanized. The language you use when discussing putting a pet to sleep is important and, again, it depends on the maturity of the child that you are talking to. Be careful about using phrases such as “put to sleep” as younger children can often interpret this literally.
Breaking the News
The first, and perhaps most important, step in the process is informing your child of what has happened. The first thing to do is to find a setting in which you can talk to your child, choose somewhere where they will feel safe and secure. Somewhere that is familiar is best; it should also be somewhere where the child can freely cry or express any emotions they feel, therefore somewhere less public is usually preferable. As you would when relaying any major news, determine how much the child needs to know based on their age and maturity level.
Stick to The Truth
It is better to give it to your children straight rather than lying in an attempt to soften the blow. Some parents tell their child that a dead pet is simply missing, but in many ways, this can be harder for children to process and so should be avoided. If your child asks about what happens to animals after they die then how you respond is up to you and will depend somewhat on your own worldview. It is perfectly OK to tell your kids ‘I don’t know’. There are a number of things you may not know about dog death and if any of these come up it is fine to say you don’t know. Looking up the answer to any questions you are unsure of can also help your kids to process events.
Dealing with the death of a family pet is never easy and can be a particularly difficult time for children. However, so long as you approach the issue smartly and sensibly you should find that they are able to cope.