Explaining a Pet’s Death to Childrenby K-Dean
“Any child old enough to love is old enough to mourn,” says Alan Wolfelt, world-renowned grief expert.
According to researchers, children begin to understand the concept of death at a young age, although they may not be aware of it at a conscious level. At one time or another we are all faced with the death of a beloved pet, and for a child, this might be the first death they are exposed to.
When it comes time to tell your little one, choose an environment where they feel safe and comfortable to express their feelings. As you would with any tough issue, try to determine how much information your child needs to hear based on their age, maturity level, and life experience.
If your pet is euthanized, try to steer clear of terms like “put to sleep” as young children might interpret these events literally and not fully understand the dying process. Explain that veterinarians try to do as much as they can to help the pet feel better, but this is the nicest and most pain free way to help the pet.
If your pet is old or has been ill for some time, you might want to talk about it with your child before thedeath occurs.
Tell the truth. It is understandable that you don’t want to upset your child, but covering up the truth by telling your child their pet went on a trip is not the best idea. It won’t take away the sadness about losing the pet, and if they find out you lied, they will most likely be mad at you.
If they ask what happens to the pet after it dies, try answering what you can, based on your own understanding of death, and incorporate your family’s viewpoint on faith.
After the death of a pet, a child may feel lonely, angry, guilty or frustrated. You can help them understand it is natural to have those feelings and it’s OK if they don’t want to talk about it right away. Expressing your feelings and talking about it openly sets an example for kids. It is comforting forchildren if they see they are not alone in feeling sad.
Moving on after pet loss can mean a ceremony for that special pet, sharing memories you had together, or even making a scrapbook all about your pet.
Here are some reactions to expect from children in different age groups:
Two to three: Children this young generally don’t understand death and often consider it a form of sleep. It is best to be honest and help them understand their pet has died, and will not return. The common reactions can include: temporary loss of speech, distress and guilt. Little ones this age will readily and easily accept a new pet in place of the dead one.
Four to six: Children in this age group have some understanding of death, but might think the pet is living underground, while continuing to eat, sleep and play. They view death as temporary and they often expect the pet to return.
Seven to nine: As they get a little older, children start to realize death is permanent. They may become curious about death and ask questions about the physical and practical details of death. The interest in death is healthy and helps children process death.
Ten to twelve: Although this age group understands death much like an adult does, they may be in denial and not fully express their emotions. Typical teenage problems such as peer pressure or tension between teens and parents may prevent the healthy expression of grief.