coping with pet loss: how to talk to your child

Talking to kids about pet death
Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Jan 24 2013

Explaining pet death to a child can be heartbreaking work. If you were lucky enough to share an incredible bond with your childhood pet, you know how much it hurts to lose that special friend. Dealing with the loss of a pet and the resulting grief in children may be painful, but it’s necessary.

How pet loss affects us

The bond formed between pets and children is undeniable. The grief of losing childhood pets very often carries over into adulthood, as one study shows. A survey conducted by the American Humane Association Animal Welfare Research Institute found that 40% of adults surveyed said the loss of a childhood pet from injury, disease, or old age continued to affect them as adults. What’s more important in the study is that more adults (45%) were still affected as adults when their pets were given away, ran away, or had an unknown end.

In another study, the same organization found that often the loss of a beloved pet proved to be an obstacle in the adoption of a new pet. One in five dog owners and one in six cat owners who lost pets said that they could not adopt another pet due to lasting grief.

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Childhood pet loss

Childhood experiences of loss are shaped by how parents share pet loss with their children. Shielding children doesn’t let them go through a natural, normal grieving process. The study cites adult experiences as children and highlights the need for open, honest communication between parents and children during pet illness. Many adults were still bitter because their pets were given away or euthanized without their knowledge, whereas children who were allowed to be a part of the decision making process felt better about their pet’s passing as adults.

How to talk to your child about the death of a pet

A complex mix of emotions will likely be present in your child in the face of a pet’s passing. Anger, guilt, and of course sadness are all normal reactions.

Children often wonder if it they are to blame for their pet’s illness or death, and may ask what happens after their pet dies. Children also quite naturally fear that you or another loved one may also die. It is helpful to explain the difference in pet lifespans to assure your child that people usually die when they are old. You can use a ruler to show a pet’s lifespan (one inch) versus a human’s (one foot).

Be as honest as you can with your child when his or her pet dies. It’s always best to tell the truth.

Avoid saying that their pet was “put to sleep” or “went away,” as these can just confuse your child. Instead, say, “Max died. This means that we won’t see him anymore.”

Explain that it’s natural for your child to miss his pet, and make sure to tell your child that you will miss his pet, too.

Other ways to help your child navigate grief include:

  • Have a memorial service for your pet. This can be a good forum for remembering the things you all loved most about your pet.
  • Encourage your child to draw pictures of your pet or write a letter to express his feelings about what has happened.
  • Gather pictures and help your child make a scrap book. This can be especially comforting to look at during those times when your child is really missing your pet.
  • There are never enough hugs at a time like this. Be sure to console your child through the grieving process as long as it takes. Make sure your child knows that everyone in the family is also grieving--knowing he has company in his sadness can be very comforting.

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