Losing a beloved pet can upset the whole family, whether your pet has died as a result of illness or accident, or is relocating to another home due to unfortunate circumstances such as a child's pet hair allergy. For young children, losing a pet might trigger a range of troubling thoughts and disquieting emotions. Encouraging kids to say goodbye to their pet helps them find ways to ask questions, express emotions like sadness and fear and to accept comfort and support from family members, teachers and friends.
Preparation for Loss
If your pet is ill and you have arranged for veterinary euthanasia, or you have decided to rehouse your pet, it's important to explain to your child the reasons for your decision and to encourage discussion and questioning griefhealing.com suggests. Use age-appropriate language, and answer your child's questions sensitively but honestly. Once your child understands your reasons for the decision, you can then encourage him to say goodbye to his pet in a way that he finds most appropriate and meaningful. With young children, actions may speak louder than words, and if your child is unsure about how to say goodbye, offer suggestions, such as giving his pet one final cuddle, or sitting with his pet while you take one last photograph of the two of them together.
Awareness and understanding of your child's responses toward the loss of his pet will enable you to create appropriate opportunities for him to express his feelings and learn how to say a final goodbye. For young children, the death of a beloved pet might not trigger immediate feelings of sadness or grief; your child might even seem disinterested in the loss. This apparent lack of compassion is more simply evidence that your child has yet to comprehend the concept of death as something final and irreversible. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, "children 3 to 5 years of age see death as temporary and potentially reversible." You might need to explain to your little one several times that when a pet dies, "it stops moving, doesn't see or hear anymore, and won't wake up again."
Conversely, if you have decided upon veterinary euthanasia, your little one might show fear toward the imminent death of his pet because he understands so little about it. Clinical nurse specialist Martha Tousley, at the Grief Healing website, warns against using euphemisms such as the phrase "put to sleep" when explaining euthanasia to children. "The reality of a peaceful death is far less traumatic to children than their terrible fantasy of it," explains Tousley. Instead, you might say, "Our pet is old and ill, and the vet is going to help him die peacefully and without pain."
Burial and Memorial
A simply structured burial ceremony for your pet can help your kid begin to process concepts about death. Make a simple gravestone by writing your pet's name, and other appropriate details, such as dates of birth and death, on a large, smooth stone using a permanent marker pen. Weatherproof the writing by varnishing over it with shellac sealant.
Choose an appropriate burial ground and let each family member gather round to take turns saying goodbye before laying your pet to rest. Older members of the family might like to recite a poem or prayer at the time of burial. Younger children could recite a favorite nursery rhyme or sing a song for their pet to signify closure of the burial ceremony. Once the grave is covered, let your little one place the gravestone on top of the soil to mark your pet's burial site. Another idea is to plant a shrub or small tree near the grave in remembrance of your pet and in celebration of the memories you shared.
Saying goodbye to a beloved pet is only the start of the grieving process. It's important to support kids as they begin to develop awareness of concepts like aging, illness and death. After the burial ceremony, your child might begin to ponder death and the meaning of life, and to ask questions that would challenge even the most erudite philosophers.
"Allowing children to grieve about their loss in their own way is important. For many children, the loss of a pet is their first experience of death, and they often need time to process the event. Parents can help by allowing kids time to talk about their feelings or to play out their feelings," says child psychiatrist Dr. Rachel Fleissner, of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
That said, don't be surprised if your child's sad farewell to his pet is quickly followed by a request for a replacement. But Dr. Fleissner advises parents to resist their child's demands for an immediate replacement. "Often a period of loss and mourning is needed for both the child and parents before a new pet can be welcomed into the family, not to replace the one that died but to bring new experiences and add a new member to the family," says Dr. Fleissner.