The loss of a pet is difficult for parents and children alike, as Christian Lemon wrote about in his recent column for City Dads. So what’s the best way to deal with the death of a pet, be it furry, feathered, finned or what have you?
The internet is filled with many great tips and resources on the subject. We’ve distilled the most common advice to help you and your children grieve, mourn and cope.
It’s OK to be upset about a pet’s death
“It’s just an animal,” some will say upon learning of the death of a pet. “Don’t let it bother you. You can just get another, right?” Chances are these people have never owned a pet.
Pets become beloved family members and best friends to many. They pass no judgment on us, and offer constant companionship and even unconditional love. We confide in them. We seek comfort from them. Often, we pamper them as we physically and emotionally care for them. It’s no wonder that 85% of the 400 U.S. adults surveyed by Veterinarians.org in 2021, said the loss of a pet was harder than or as hard to deal with as the loss of a family member or friend.
Therefore, feeling sad, remorseful, and even anger are all natural grieving responses to the loss of a pet just as they would be to the death of a relative or friend. Talk about your feelings with a trusted person who will understand. Encourage your children to express their feelings, too.
Talking to your children about the loss of a pet
Experts agree a direct and honest approach is the best way to talk to children about a family pet’s death:
- Find a quiet, familiar place and a time without distraction. Avoid these talks right before school, an activity or bedtime.
- Speak calmly and use simple, concise language. Don’t overexplain or make up tales about pets “going away.” If a pet is old or ill, for example, explain that its body stopped working properly and even all the veterinarian’s skills and medicines could no longer fix it. If a pet must be euthanized, explain that it is the kindest way to stop the pain and suffering of the animal.
- Avoid euphemisms. These might confuse or frighten a child. For example, saying a pet is being “put to sleep” or “going to sleep forever” may create worries about a child’s own bedtime.
- Share your feelings with your child about your pet’s passing. Showing your vulnerability lets your child know it is OK for them to do the same.
Being with your pet at death
Whether you should be present when a pet is euthanized is a personal choice. Some think being there to comfort their pet in its last moments is a final gift to their companion; others find the pain of witnessing their loss and death too great. One thing to consider is how you think you will feel after. Guilt and regret for not being present are common.
Children, just like their parents, should also be given a choice. While parents naturally want to shield their children from pain, their being present can also help them grieve and mourn later.
Consider the child’s age and temperament. Talk about the euthanasia process beforehand. Read an age-appropriate book about pet death with them, such as Goodbye, Mousie or The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (ages 3 to 8).
Honor your pet’s memory, express your feelings
Burying your pet in the backyard or spreading its ashes at its favorite play spot is sometimes not enough to bring closure. Hold a small candlelit ceremony where each family member shares a brief favorite memory of their pet. Children can choose one of the pet’s toys to bury with it or have them decorate a stone for a grave marker. They can also help plant a tree in the pet’s honor.
Afterward, use creativity to help yourself or your children through grief together. Write a letter to or a poem/story about your deceased pet. Make a scrapbook or box of memories/mementos of your pet. Have your kids draw pictures of themselves and their pets times together.
Take time to grieve, mourn, heal
While believe getting a new pet right away will help take away the pain, that’s not always the case. Make sure you can physically and emotionally handle those duties again. Practice self-care. Join a pet loss bereavement group or find a friend who has undergone a similar loss to talk to.
- An Age-by-Age Guide to Explaining the Death of a Pet to Children – Family Education
- Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement – They have a comprehensive list of books for adults and children to help with understanding the loss of a pet.
- Best Friends: Pet Loss Grief Resources – Includes a list of books for adults, teens and young children
- How to Talk to Kids About the Death of a Pet – Child Development Institutes
- Managing Grief: A Guide to Mourning and Memorializing Your Companion Animal – Michigan State University Veterinary Medical Center
- Grief Support Center – RainbowBridge.com