The Loss of a Pet: Tips on How to Handle Your Pet’s Death with Your Child

by Nicole Dempsey

I’ll never forget the day my parents told me that our beloved golden retriever, Andy, had died. He was a young dog, only about three at the time, and he was struck by a car as he was running around the farm. He was my best friend and I could not imagine ever being able to get over him no longer being there every afternoon to greet us as we got off the school bus. Losing a beloved family pet is a devastating event for the entire family. For a child it is often their first experience with losing a loved one. Whether Sammy, the cat, dies from natural age or there is an incident, it is good to be prepared to support your child through the process. Below are some tips on how to handle the loss of your family pet with your children.

Tell the truth and be honest. Pick a place where your child will feel comfortable and you can talk to them with little distraction. Try to imagine how you’re going to tell them ahead of time. Children respond in a variety of ways; therefore, keep what you say to a minimum and wait to see if they ask for more information. Some children may be okay with simply, “Andy died when he was hit by a car.”

It’s normal for you to want to spare your child’s feelings, but try to remain honest. Avoid telling them stories, such as “Buster ran away,” or “Pete went to visit relatives.” This will only set them up for more heartache later once they realize that you weren’t completely forthcoming. You, as a parent, may lose some credibility and your child may become angry. In addition, children have very vivid imaginations and may create stories in their mind about Pete’s return.

Prepare yourself to talk about death in general. The event may also ignite a sense of curiosity about what happens to us when we die. Younger children tend to become concerned about the possibility of you dying; whereas, older children and tweens may become consumed with thoughts and anxieties surrounding their own mortality.

Give your child options for how they would like to honor their pet. Some children may want to draw a picture of their pet, while others may want to plant a flower. Or, some children may want to see their dead pet and may also want to hold a burial service. Whatever choice your child makes, follow their lead.

Give your child the space to express their thoughts and feelings. Children may experience many different types of emotions, from sadness to anger and even some guilt. Help them identify and name their feelings. Also, try to show patience and understanding, even when it feels like your child is continuously talking about the pet’s death. This “preoccupation” is normal and will eventually subside.

In addition to these tips, a great book you can read with your child is “The Tenth Good Thing About Barney” by Judith Viorst. The book is about how a boy and his family decide to say goodbye to their cat, Barney.

Nicole Dempsey is a therapist at Lee’s Place, which specializes in providing grief, loss, and trauma services to individuals and families.

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