Helping Children Through Pet Illness & Death
The death of a family pet is often a child’s first experience with death and loss. Some helpful ideas are:
- Be as honest as possible. Avoid euphemisms like, “put to sleep.” These can be frightening and confusing to children (especially young children) who associate the word sleep with going to bed.
- As a parent, it’s natural to want to protect your child from any pain, including the pain associated with grief. Some parents think that a way to do this is to lie about the death of a pet. Fabricating reasons why a pet is no longer in the home leads to many other emotional effects, such Children Dealing with the Loss of a Pet as abandonment beliefs, a continued sense of hope for their return, and unresolved grief due to a loss not being recognized. Instead, be honest with your children about a pet’s death.
- Recognize that a pet’s death is a significant loss for children and should not be trivialized or minimized. It is an important time for parents and other adults to teach children how to express grief in emotionally healthy ways free of shame or embarrassment.
- Discover what the individual child is thinking. Be open and receptive to any questions/concerns that your child may have. Encourage him or her to ask the veterinarian questions that may occur. Remember, there are no stupid questions.
- Be alert to “magical thinking.” Young children often mistakenly believe that they are somehow responsible for the pet’s death. Talk openly with children about this.
- Involve children as much as possible in decisions surrounding the pet’s illness and death. During euthanasia, it can be helpful for the child to have a choice of being present or not, given that they are well prepared for the event taking place. If a child does not want to be present for the actual euthanasia, viewing their pet’s body afterwards for final goodbyes can help create a sense of closure and finality.
- Understand that the emotional responses to a pet’s death vary according to the child’s relationship with the animal. Don’t assume that a child’s reaction will be the same as the adult’s.
- Parents are encouraged to involve their children in a good-bye ceremony and in memorializing the pet. Some ideas are making a clay paw print, ink paw print, cutting a hair clipping, creating a shadow box, or holding a funeral service or memorial celebration.
- Don’t encourage replacement of pets, but rather share memories and stories of the deceased pet.
Children experience grief, though their Age and Development Levels influence their grief reactions. They express grief differently than adults due to shortened attention spans and varying intellectual levels of understanding death and loss. Each child is unique and overlap occurs across levels of development.