When a Pet Dies-What to Say to Your Child
By Kristen Houghton
friend put me a bit of bind recently. Her elderly, beloved old yellow
Labrador, Good Dog, had died. Not knowing what to say to her four year
old son about it, she told him that “Good Dog went to live with Kristen
for a while.” The problem was that she told him this without telling
me. As fate would have it, I ran into them at the post office and the
first thing he asked me was why Good Dog wanted to live with me. He then
wanted to know when he could see Good Dog. I was clueless but had the
presence of mind to let mom handle the awkward moment.
Dealing with the passing of a well-loved pet is usually a small child’s
first experience with death. It is hard because it is permanent.
Children only know that their animal family member is no longer in their
daily lives. How can we explain something as profound as death to a
child when we as adults have a hard enough time dealing with it
My friend was acting in a kind, protective manner
to her son by saying that his dog was living with me, but it was
momentary comfort because inevitably, the child would want to come and
visit Good Dog. How should we tell our children about this topic? What
will they understand?
Age plays a key role in talking to
children about any subject. A child of ten or older is worldlier when it
comes to certain topics. They may have studied the ancient Egyptians
and the elaborate tombs of the Pharaohs in a social studies class, thus
having some concept of death and after-life.
But a child
under the age of seven doesn’t really comprehend permanent loss. When a
little girl told me that a relative was in heaven, she was only
parroting what adults had told her. She followed her statement up a
second later with the question, “What’s heaven?”
There is no
right or wrong way to talk to your child about this. Everything is
subjective and personal beliefs play a major role in our explanations.
If your family is deeply religious and strongly believes in an
afterlife, then it is possible to gently explain the situation. Children
are comforted by beliefs that play a major role in their family life.
Be prepared that your child may also question whether you yourself, or
other family members, are going to die. This fear becomes strong in
children after the loss of a pet. Choose words carefully.
Whatever you tell your child; be gentle in your explanation. Talk about
the good times your child had with their pet. Don’t be brutally honest.
They do not need to know that their pet suffered in any way. Long
explanations are unnecessary; answer only the questions that they ask
and answer kindly.
Children are great listeners to adult
conversation, so be careful what you say to another adult when you think
the children are too busy to hear you.
Be respectful of even
the youngest child’s grieving process. Children need to mourn the loss
of their pet. Do not “replace” their beloved pet. Take time before you
bring a new animal family member into your home.
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