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Talking to your children about the death of your pet

Julianna still tears up when she thinks about her longtime dog Sadie. “I’m embarrassed. Shouldn’t I be over this by now?” she asks three months later. “It’s mainly when the kids ask about her – where did she go, why did you let her die, is the same thing going to happen to you, Mommy? Who will take care of us?” I don’t know what to tell them, especially when I’m all choked up.”

She raises a good question: How can we help children deal with the death of a beloved pet?

In fact, this can become a teachable moment for both parent and child. Young children don’t understand death the way we do, often seeing it as a temporary condition, as in When will Sadie come back from being dead? They don’t have the brain power yet to summon a picture of life without something (or someone) they’ve always had. But they have the heart power to feel threatened by the loss of someone they love. They are not so good with abstract concepts either, as in If he goes to dog heaven, can we visit him on the weekend?

These days, we try to tell our children the truth. There is less need for the kind of fiction that used to be popular with parents who couldn’t face talking about this: Fido went to live out his days at a farm where he can run free. I know a 68 year-old man who recently questioned his siblings about whether their dog Scamper had really gone to live on a farm as he’d been told, or instead, been run over by a car? He’d happily believed the first story for decades, and was crushed to learn that the 3-2 split decision vote went for the latter story.

So, what can parents say?

Experts suggest short and sweet explanations: Sadie was sick and in pain and she died. Skip the euphemisms that try to soften the blow – passed away, passed on, went to sleep; just say died. The others only confuse.

Then, wait for questions, and answer them the same way – quickly, simply, concretely.

What can parents do?

Children like ceremony, whether a funeral in the back yard or over the toilet bowl; some kind of a formal goodbye.

They also like a place to remember, like a corner in the house with photos and mementos, or a place in the yard to plant a tree in the pet’s honor. They might like to plan that themselves.

Parents can keep the conversation going in fits and starts for as long as the issue comes up. When emotions surface, it is important to encourage the expression of sadness, anger, longing. This can happen through talking, play, drawing. Recognize that kids grieve differently than adults. They don’t get sad and stay sad; they get sad and are off to play happily soon after. They need the same things we do – comfort, support, expression, just in different doses.

Parents are advised to wait awhile to get a new pet, giving this loss time to sink in and a chance for the emotions to be expressed before choosing the next pet to love. A quick substitution short-circuits grieving, which doesn’t work for any of us.

Know that as children process their first losses, they are building the foundation for their ability to handle the inevitable ones of the future. Twenty years from now, expect to hear, Remember when Sadie died and we planted that tree for her? It’s twenty feet tall! She was a good old dog.

Some other resources include:

This article on covers talking about euthanasia of a pet with children:

A book for families by one of my favorite grief authors:

When Your Pet Dies: A Guide to Mourning, Remembering & Healing

by Alan D Wolfelt

Out of Print but good if you can find a used copy: A workbook for children by a counselor: Healing Your Heart When Your Animal Friend is Gone: A Children's Pet Bereavement Workbook by Kimberly A Cardeccia.

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