Our family pet recently passed away and it’s been very hard on our kids. How can we talk to them about death and help them deal with this loss?
Whenever we talk to someone about any kind of loss whether it be a pet, a person or a job it’s important for us to do two things. The first is to listen to them, to what they say and how they say it.
The second is to exercise empathy–trying to see things through their eyes and to feel things through their heart. What may seem like an insignificant loss to one person can be an emotionally devastating loss to another and when we discount or minimize the loss we risk discounting and minimizing the other person. This is especially true with children.
From a child’s point of view the death of a pet can be very significant. This pet may have been your child’s best friend, someone they’ve spent hours playing with and talking to. It’s someone they could talk to when they couldn’t talk to a family member. It has been their loyal companion, confidant and faithful friend. With this pet they’ve learned important life lessons such as love, loyalty, compassion, safety, trust, empathy and how to care for someone else.
Remember that the loss of a pet is one of the major and most common loses a child will experience and may be their first experience in dealing with illness and death. When talking with your child be sure to let them know that it is all right to be sad and that they will miss their pet. It’s okay to cry. Don’t talk about the pet “going to sleep” or “passing away” but that it has died, it doesn’t have life in its body anymore. Someday every living thing will die and death and losing something or someone is very sad.
Some children will be angry because they don’t understand the emotions they are feeling and while those emotions may not make sense to you or to them this is a great opportunity to show them that emotions don’t always have to make sense and that mom and dad are always safe people to talk to when things don’t make sense. Let them ask questions and remember that you don’t have to have all of the answers.
As you listen to their concerns you might also want to ask them what they will miss the most about their pet. Encourage them to share their favorite memories. Depending on their age you might want to encourage them to draw pictures or you might draw some pictures with them. Some families have found it helpful to have a little “memorial service” where they share fun stories and favorite memories about their pet.
Helping our kids deal with the illness and death of a pet can be a great opportunity to help prepare them to deal with the illness, death and grief around the loss of an important person in their life. Remember that everyone deals with grief and loss in different ways and for different amounts of time so don’t be concerned if over a period of several weeks or a few months it’s something that they periodically bring up.
Explaining death looks different at different ages and I’d encourage you to pick up a copy of It’s Okay to Cry, a book and interactive workbook for parents by H. Norman Wright, where you’ll find a goldmine of biblically-based insights and practical suggestions for helping children deal with a wide range of losses.