The first major addition to our household was our dog, Waldo. The memory of driving home with our new little puppy in my lap always brings a smile to my face. He taught my husband and me how to be consistent and set boundaries in our household. And he happily took on the role of playmate and overseer to our first son who was born a year later. Waldo lived a life that reminded us to slow down and enjoy the little things like an evening walk, or a delicious bone. I guess the rest of us never really got the bone thing, but you get the picture. When he passed away, after 14 wonderful years with us, I knew that our boys would need a lot of support in dealing with the death of their beloved pet.
The Death of A Pet Has An Especially Large Impact On Kids
Dealing with the loss of a pet can be difficult for everyone, but can have an especially large impact on children. They may not have experienced a significant loss in life yet. Their bond with a family pet may be even more intense than their bonds with some of their human relatives. They may not remember a time in their life when the pet wasn’t a part of the family.
Helping your child deal with the death of a pet:
1) Be Straightforward & Honest:
Always avoid using explanations that mask the truth. Don’t gloss over the event with a lie. Telling a child that “Buster ran away” or “Max went on a trip” impedes a sense of closure and likely won’t alleviate the sadness about losing the pet. And if the truth does come out, your child will probably be angry that you lied.
If asked what happens to the pet after it dies, draw on your own understanding of death, including, if relevant, the viewpoint of your faith. And since none of us knows fully, an honest “I don’t know” certainly can be an appropriate answer — it’s OK to tell kids that death is a mystery.
2) Hold Space For Conversation:
Like anyone dealing with a loss, kids will feel a variety of emotions besides sadness after the death of a pet. They might experience loneliness, anger if the pet was euthanized, frustration that the pet couldn’t get better, or guilt about times that they were mean to or less involved with their pet than promised. Help your child understand that it’s natural to feel a complexity of emotions; some that may even feel contradictory. You can also help your child reflect upon good times, funny memories, and the chaos that the animal brought to the home.
3) Keep A Token Of Remembrance:
Allow your child to keep a reminder of your animal. This could be a collar, a favorite toy, or a picture. We have a golden retriever Christmas ornament that we purchased in memory of Waldo. Many people hold a service for the lost pet and create a spot to bury the remains, spread the ashes, or plant a plant as a memorial. Keeping tangible items that honor a pet can be therapeutic.
4) Be aware of the routine change:
For many kids, their lives and family responsibilities center around the daily needs of their pets. They are constantly reminded of the loss by the change in these responsibilities (this may be the only time they aren’t complaining about dog poop!). Be cognizant of routine reminders that may be impacting your child.
5) Don’t hide your feelings:
Showing how you feel and talking about it openly sets an example for your kids. As adults, we sometimes feel like we need to put on a “good face” for our children during trying times. It’s OK for them to see us cry or express sadness. Share stories about your own family pets from when you were young and how you handled those losses. By modeling the grieving process, you are showing your child a roadmap to resilience.
A Pet’s Value Can’t Be Measured
Our family was honored to have Waldo grow with our boys and his legacy is forever noted in his contributions to the development of our family. While he passed away a number of years ago, he still regularly comes up in family conversation. In honoring these memories and providing attentive support, my children are learning that while a loved one’s memory never fades, we can honor their lives in ways that help us move forward.