BURLINGTON, Vt. —One of the saddest questions I get from parents is how to help a child cope with the death of a pet. Well let me see if I can provide some information on this all too common topic.
First, it is important to understand that how a child deals with a pet’s death depends largely depends on their age and personality. For example, until children are age 5 or 6, their view of the word is very concrete, so they don’t understand death, but might understand your telling them that a pet’s body was not working anymore and cannot be fixed.
They may not understand this is permanent at this age and you may have to repeat the fact that the pet cannot be fixed and will not come back. A key concept at this age and even as your child gets older is that he or she may feel they are to blame for this happening, and obviously you need to reassure your child often more than once in the weeks and months that follow that this is not the case at all.
Avoid phrases such as the pet “went away” or “went to sleep” since children may become fearful when you tell them a family member is going away or going to sleep.
Kids between 6 and 10 years of age do understand the finality of death but don’t quite understand that it will eventually happen to them one day. Providing accurate, simple, clear and honest answers to their questions is the best way to talk with children at this age.
Teens understand that eventually everyone dies. They may experience some guilt or anger about the pet’s death even at this age, and it is important to encourage them to express and share their grief, anger or sadness.
Parents, sharing your own grief and even tears in front of your child or teen may actually help your young one deal with their own emotional pain and loss. Make sure your child regardless of age, knows that despite the loss, that you can continue to love and talk about the happy memories of the pet forever, and maybe over time welcome a new pet into the family.
Your child’s doctor or your pet’s veterinarian can help and provide access to books, and if necessary counselors to help a child and family go through this difficult time.
Hopefully tips like this will bring peace of mind to you and your children when it comes to dealing with the particulars in helping them deal with the death of the family pet.