When a pet dies, it's common for people to feel as though they've lost a member of the family. For children, this is often their first encounter with death. In an attempt to soften the blow, parents sometimes explain the death of a pet in vague ways or skirt the topic altogether. But experts say this just makes things worse by leaving children anxious and mystified.
Explaining a pet's death to children in a clear, respectful manner can go a long way toward making the journey a little less distressful, and at the same time enhance your connection with your child. Here are some of the most common questions parents ask about what to tell their children when a pet dies.
When a pet dies, what do children think and believe?
Young children aren't developmentally ready to understand death in the same way adults do. As their understanding deepens over time, the lens through which they view death changes too. From ages 3 to 5, children tend to view death as temporary and reversible. They may believe you can bring a pet back to life by taking it to the doctor for a shot. Magical thinking also may prompt your 4-year-old to believe he somehow caused the pet's death when he wished for a playful puppy to replace an elderly dog with bad breath and health problems.
From ages 6 to 8, children usually know death is irreversible but believe it only happens to others. They understand the concept but may not be able to accept that a death is happening to them. From ages 9 to 11, children come to understand that death is inevitable, even for them. However, children in these age ranges may still feel somewhat responsible for the pet's death, thinking their beloved pet may not have died if only they'd taken her for more dog walks or kept the water bowl full.
Of course, each child is unique, says Abigail McNamee, PhD, EdD, chair of the Department of Early Childhood and Childhood Education at City University of New York. McNamee says parents should consider the following questions: "How many experiences has your child had with death? How have you talked with him or her about death? What's been seen on television?" McNamee tells WebMD that all these things will influence your child's ability to understand and accept a pet's death.
Our cat was just run over by a car. What should I tell my children?
When a pet dies, be honest, accurate, and brief, advises McNamee. Parents tend to use euphemisms such as "passed away" or "went to sleep" to describe death. For a young child, words like these may end up creating confusion or even extreme fear about going to bed at night, McNamee says.
"Don't feel as though you have to give them a lot of information," says McNamee. "Tell them what happened, then see what comes from them, such as their feelings and ideas about how to handle the death."
Kimberly A. Cardeccia, MA, LPC, NCC, author of Healing Your Heart When Your Animal Friend is Gone: A Children's Pet Bereavement Workbook, says it is best to tell your children about the death right away. Then allow your children to ask questions. "Recognize that if they ask for details, they're asking for comfort," she says. "Spare them any details that would traumatize them or create a horrible picture in their minds. Make it sound as peaceful as you can."
When a pet dies, should children be present for euthanasia?
For a child under 5, McNamee advises not going into detail about euthanasia. Instead, when your pet dies in this manner, tell your child the dog was so sick or in so much pain that he died, or that the doctor needed to help him die.
If your child is older than 5, you can describe what euthanasia is and why it is sometimes necessary. Be prepared for blunt questions such as "Isn't that like killing someone?"
McNamee suggests asking a child 7 or older whether he or she wants to be present for euthanasia. You can learn a lot, she says, by simply asking your child. If this is a new experience, describe in advance what to expect.
Cardeccia suggests having the veterinarian explain to your child what the pet's bodily reactions might be during euthanasia to dispel any concerns about the pet being in pain. Another option, she says, is to bring your child into the room right after the pet dies to say goodbye.
My child doesn't seem to be grieving. What's wrong?
Remember that grief in a child may not look the same as it does in an adult. "A child may not react in as sad a way as an adult might expect," says McNamee. She might go in and out of strong feelings - be intensely sad, then begin to play and act as if it hasn't happened."
Behavior is often the language of young children, so your child may display grief with a change in play. It's also common for a 7- to 9-year-old to ask morbid questions about the death, which are best answered directly and honestly.
Teens may have a different reaction. They may either under react or overreact, often caught in a place somewhere between childhood and adulthood. Your teen may not want to talk but may go off by himself, says McNamee.
The important thing to know, she says, is that children of all ages grieve over pet loss. They just don't do it in the same way.
When a pet dies, what can I do to help my child?
Both Cardeccia and McNamee emphasize the importance of involving your children in the grieving process by asking them directly what they'd like to do. "Children need a process of saying goodbye," says McNamee, and you can help them do this in a variety of ways. Have them draw pictures of your pet. Share funny stories. Plant a tree in the backyard in honor of the pet. Put the pet's ashes and pictures on the fireplace mantle. These kinds of tangible steps may be more helpful to your child than talking alone.
There are also many children's books that explain the death of a pet to help with the grieving process. But read them first with an eye toward whether they promote misconceptions about death, says McNamee. Some do. Look for books that communicate that others have had a similar experience and feelings, McNamee says, and that it is okay to feel sad or angry. If you're reading these to your child, you can leave out any parts you feel are inappropriate.
In response to requests from parents for a helpful resource, Cardeccia created a workbook to help children grieve. "I wanted to create something that would open lines of communication between the parent and child," she says. She also wanted it to be a place to create a memorial for the pet.
You might ask your children whether they want to have a funeral, and explain to younger children that this is one way to help someone move into death, says McNamee. If you have religious beliefs about death or life after death, you can share these with your child. Be careful with younger children, though, to make sure they're clear about the finality of physical death, McNamee says.
I'm sad, too . . . is it okay to let my child see me grieve?
Cardeccia says it's okay for your child to see you being sad. But remember that there is a difference between crying and sobbing, which can be scary to a child.
McNamee agrees that heavy grieving around a child is overwhelming. To know whether you've gone too far, she says, "Ask yourself, 'Am I focused on my child, or myself?'"
When a pet dies, what should I do if my child has trouble letting go?
Again, remember that your child's grieving process may not look the same as yours. Things may seem fine one day, then a book or television program may trigger an outburst of grief. It's not uncommon for a child to return repeatedly to their sense of loss and grief, says McNamee.
So how will you know if your child needs extra support to resolve his or her grief? Here are a few signs to look for when your child can't get over the loss of a pet:
- Your child's sadness doesn't come and go but seems constant.
- Sadness lasts longer than a month.
- Your child has trouble in school, can't sleep or has other signs such as stomachaches - problems that didn't occur before the pet's death.
You can help by keeping the conversation as open as possible. Ask, "Are you feeling sad about Buddy's death? Would you like to talk with someone about it - either by yourself or with me?"
It may also help to recount your own childhood experiences with pet death or to allow your child to dramatize the death through play with stuffed animals.
When is it time to get another pet?
Respect the grieving process. Don't jump too quickly into getting another pet. And when you do, make it a family decision.
How quickly this occurs, or whether it occurs at all, is unique to each family. As a guideline, McNamee suggests waiting at least six months. For the child who is eager to get another pet right away, you can explain that your family needs to wait a while to allow time to say goodbye to your pet and to make sure everyone is ready to get a new one.
In the meantime, you can help your child anticipate the arrival of a new pet by starting the research process - thinking about the breed of dog you might want, the place to get it, and possible names. At the same time, your child can get more closure about her pet's death by helping to decide whether to keep the old pet's possessions or to buy new ones.