As an animal lover, I’ve had pets since I was in high school. First birds, then dogs, cats, now we even have a whole farm full of animals including horses, sheep, cows, and chickens to enjoy (although they don’t all qualify as “pets”). But with the great love of a pet comes the great sadness when you lose them. As parents, we know that our family pets won’t be with us forever. Take the opportunity to help your children appreciate your pet while it’s still with you. Take pictures, write stories, and create memories with your family friend. And when you do lose them, here are some things we’ve learned about helping your children deal with the loss of a pet…
- Lie. Grief and loss are a part of life and you’ll face it many times in the future. Dealing with the loss of a pet is setting the tone for facing the loss of Grandma Smith later on. So while the loss of your 18th goldfish might not seem like a crucial parenting moment, consider it an important chance to reinforce your family’s values and beliefs. Be clear. Be honest. Be consistent.
- Ignore it. There can be a lot of fear and/or guilt wrapped up in any personal loss. It’s important to make sure your child understands what happened in an age-appropriate way, or if they have any questions or doubts that need to be addressed. Children are also master eavesdroppers, so make sure they haven’t overheard something that might have been misunderstood.
- Listen and comfort. Children don’t always grasp the long-term nature of death and grief. They are sad when it happens, but they might forget the pain for a while until something reminds them—like seeing someone else’s pet or missing a routine activity like feeding or walking their friend. Listen to them if they admit they’re sad and comfort them. And don’t be surprised if it comes up several weeks or even months after the death of a pet.
- Correct if necessary. Keep your ears open to be sure your children fully grasp what they’ve been told or if there were any mix-ups that need to be clarified. We have discovered that once they’re over the initial shock, our kids love to talk about the “drama” of sickness or death on the farm with other kids in school or Sunday school. That’s how I found out our kids thought our donkey was buried in the backyard because that’s the last place they saw her at, and that’s why they wouldn’t play back there for a while.
- Inform others. A lot of people impact our children’s daily lives. Inform teachers, grandparents, or parents of friends about what happened and how your family prefers for it to be discussed. Part of this networking can also serve to keep you informed if questions or confusion arise long-term, or help other parents that might start getting crazy questions at home.
- Encourage good memories. Help them to remember positive things about their pet. Offer to help save memories by framing pictures, scrapbooking, or writing journals, stories, or poetry as memorial projects.
And don’t forget…all of the above apply to adults too. The death of a family pet can be traumatic for everyone. Be sure to offer yourself and your spouse the same love and consideration as your children as you move forward without your companion.