When a pet dies, everyone in the family is affected. But for many children, this may be their first close encounter with death. Their emotions and reactions may vary wildly from one child to another, but learning to help your kids grieve may be one of the more important lessons you teach them.
Nancy Gillespie of Brookfield lost two of her three dogs in less than one year. Her children, Kelsey, 11, and Joseph, 7, dealt with the deaths in very different ways and Gillespie had to learn to help her children recover while she was also aching for the dogs she loved.
"I wish I could have shielded them from hurting from Bailey’s and Kramer’s deaths, but I knew I couldn’t," says Gillespie.
Explaining euthanasia. As a pet ages or develops a disease, parents know the possibility of putting it down is a likely reality. But what’s the best way for a parent to explain euthanasia to their children?
"Depending on the age of the child, parents need to explain their reasons for putting the pet down," says Regina Carlson, a therapist at the Adventist GlenOaks Therapeutic Day School in Glendale Heights. "Information is the best way to prepare."
Choose your words carefully. Before blurting out the news, think about the words you will use to explain your pet’s death to your children. A common term adults use for euthanasia is "putting to sleep." But this simple phrase can confuse and upset a child.
"If families have talked to children about putting their pet to sleep, it might make the kids afraid to go to sleep," says Dr. John Glennon, child psychologist and clinical director for the Adventist GlenOaks Therapeutic Day School.
An unexpected death. If your pet dies unexpectedly, whether from old age or an accident, don’t hide it from your children while you try to come up with an explanation. Show your emotions and share your grief with your kids. While you may not want to give them the gory details of the accident or let them see the dead body, sharing your raw emotion gives your children unspoken permission to express their grief. Holding back or pretending that you are unaffected is confusing for kids.
Don’t lie. Did it cross your mind to tell your kids that their favorite pet ran away or that you sent him to a farm to live out his old age? Coming up with a story might keep them from feeling grief, but eventually your kids will figure out the truth and feel betrayed.
"If a child finds out it’s a lie, they will be upset," says Carlson. "Even if the child does believe, sometimes he might perceive that if it was easy for (a) parent to give up a dog or not look for it, that he might be treated the same."
Not just a pet. As an adult, you’ve probably experienced the death of friends or family members, so perhaps the death of a pet doesn’t hurt as badly for you. But for a child, whose sphere of experience is so small, a pet may mean as much to them as you do.
Telling your child that they shouldn’t be so upset because it was only an animal will not help your child cope with death. To them, their pet was an important friend and family member. Respect your children’s right to grieve as deeply as they need to by validating their feelings.
Allow others to help. When Gillespie’s daughter Kelsey grieved for the dogs she loved so much, she found it helpful to talk to her school counselor.
"Kelsey didn’t want to talk about it with me, but she brought pictures of the dogs to school," she says. "She was also given a chance to talk to a social worker there."
Read a book. If you are having trouble explaining your feelings or the circumstances, seek out a book to help younger children explore their feelings. Books like Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant or I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm can help the younger set understand death and puts their emotions into context.
Conduct a ceremony. When humans die, there is usually some sort of ceremony and a chance to say goodbye. The same courtesy can be afforded to pets. For a goldfish, a backyard burial might be appropriate. If a dog or cat died at the veterinarian’s office, gather the family at home to celebrate the pet’s life. Or spend some time poring over Web sites to choose a memorial stone for the garden, many of which can be personalized with your pet’s name and dates.
"There are so many things a family can do," says Carlson. "Make a memorial, plant a flower or tree, write a poem, draw pictures and share stories."
Talk about the memories. Encourage your children to talk about their pet even long after they’ve died. Gillespie’s family remembers Bailey and Kramer by keeping pictures on the mantel at home. "Time has healed our wounds, but we still talk about them," she says.
Moving on. A family who loved their pet will probably want to expand their family again, but choosing the right time can be difficult. Parents might feel that introducing a new pet immediately might reduce the sting, but it can actually have the opposite effect.
"A child has to understand that a new pet is not a replacement," says Glennon. "Getting a new pet shouldn’t be an effort to minimize the loss or children might think they are replaceable, too."
In time, your kids’ pain will ease and they may begin asking for a new pet. Follow your instincts. After all, the desire for a pet should stem from love, not from loss.
Michelle Sussman is a mom, wife and writer in Bolingbrook who as a child was devastated by the loss of her cat Pudgy. Visit her on the Web at www.michellesussman.com.