For most adults, we view our pets as members of the family. Animals bring us joy, love and attachment. When a pet dies, the grief we experience can be like losing a loved one; it can be heartbreaking. For children, that loss can be devastating.
“It can often be the hardest on the kids because these children have formed a bond almost like a sibling attachment,” says Dr. Pilar Bradshaw of Eugene Pediatric Associates.
What to say and when
If the pet’s death is sudden or unexpected, use age-appropriate language to calmly explain to your child what happened, Dr. Bradshaw advises. Be brief and let your child’s questions guide how much information you provide.
If you must euthanize your pet, it’s best not to use language that makes children think that the pet has gone to sleep.
“That is a very scary idea for a kid, that you could just go to sleep and never wake up again. So, use language with your kids that’s real, that’s not scary, but that tells them honestly what is going to happen,” Dr. Bradshaw says.
If you need help on how best to talk with your child about loss, ask your pediatrician, or find an age-appropriate children’s book to help you explain it.
Allow time to process
Let your child know it’s OK and natural to feel sad, lonely or even angry over the loss of a pet. Acknowledge and validate their feelings. For kids, grieving over the loss of a pet is like grieving a person, so be sure to give your child time to process their emotions.
“Don’t rush and say, “Well, let’s get another dog,’ as soon as your dog has passed, because that child needs a chance to grieve,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “They need to feel the love that they had for their pet pass in a natural way and be able to process that before you move on as a family.”
To help your child remember their pet, share comforting memories of fun times you had together, or help them make a scrapbook or photo collage.
“Sometimes it’s helpful to have a little monument in your yard, a rock and put the pet’s name on it, anything that helps your child kind of process what’s just happened,” Dr. Bradshaw says.
Dr. Bradshaw also encourages parents to be open with their children about their own sadness over losing a family pet, because it’s comforting to kids to know that they’re not alone in how they feel.