Dealing with the loss of a beloved family pet is never easy. While adults often have previous experience with loss and grief, the death of a pet may present the very first time that many children encounter this type of situation and the accompanying feelings of grief.
“Every child will encounter death, it is a part of life,” says Jon Katz, New York Times bestselling author of Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die. “It is not something to be dwelled on, but not something to be hidden either…If we deal openly with the loss of an animal, we can learn how to cope with loss in life.” Help your children to handle the death of a pet by considering these tips:
• Be honest. “I can’t tell you how many adults bitterly recount their parents lying to them to protect them from the loss of their pet,” says Katz. “It is not a healthy thing to do, and children feel betrayed when they learn the truth, which they inevitably will.” Instead, Katz suggests being open and honest with your children, possibly including them in the decision-making process. “Let kids talk to the vet, understand the illness, and participate in ways to help the animal through [its] suffering and illness,” he adds, noting the therapeutic advantages of allowing a child to help when feeding and medicating a family pet.
• Acknowledge the loss. While it’s wise to provide reassurance your children that it’s natural to feel sad and to miss their pet, you should always encourage them to dwell on the pleasant memories of their pet’s happier and healthier days.
• Celebrate your pet’s life. “New technology gives us many ways to remember our pets. They don’t have to vanish,” says Katz, citing memorial options such as grave markers, digital photo albums, and a blog or website to record special memories. “Remember the fun the family had, the special things your pet did. Families can put together memory books and look at them.”
• Move on—slowly. You may or may not decide to replace your deceased pet with a new one, but if you do choose to adopt a new pet, Katz suggests observing a moderate waiting period. “Some time should pass so that the loss can be honored and absorbed. Children should not see life as instantly replaceable,” he adds, while noting that “nothing is more healing than another dog or cat.”