Losing a pet can affect the entire family, but it can be particularly traumatic for children because it's usually their first encounter with loss or death. And it can be overwhelming for their parents. Although we can't stop our kids from having a broken heart, there are things we can do to make their bereavement process as healthy and manageable as possible.
According to Dr. Robi Ludwig, a nationally known psychotherapist and author, the first step to help kids learn how to cope with the loss of a pet is to be honest with them. As difficult as this may be, it's important to tell them the truth. Stay away from half truths and euphemistic descriptions about death. Instead, sensitively explain to your child that his or her pet has died. A child's understanding about death will vary based on his or her age.
According to the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, kids between the ages of 7 and 9 tend to have the most questions about death. If your child asks you what happens after death, it's OK to admit that you're not entirely sure.
This loss can also trigger a child's fears that you or other people he or she loves will die. Remember to be patient and try to address these fears as they come up. For example, if your child asks you if you're going to die and leave them too, you can say something like, "Most people die when they are very old, and I don't plan to leave this earth for a very long time."
The second step is to honor your child's feelings. It's important to help your child express his or her grief. You can encourage your children to make drawings or write stories about their pet, according to the ASPCA. It's also very helpful to have them recall happy memories, which allows them to both grieve and remember happier times.
Kids may need to cry and express their feelings of loss, which is to be expected. They might also struggle with other complex emotions, like anger, denial and guilt. Encourage your child to talk with you about his or her feelings. This will allow you to explain that what they are experiencing is normal and a natural part of the grieving process. Ultimately, you'll want to help your children move through their feelings of depression and eventually come to a place of acceptance.
One of the ways to encourage your child's healthy acceptance of a pet's death is to find a way to memorialize this passing. Having a burial, memorial or similar type of ceremony helps reinforce the importance of the pet's life while also marking his or her death. This can be done in many different ways. Kids should be allowed to participate in whatever way feels right for them. Maybe it's marking the gravesite, making a garden stone with the pet's name on it, planting a tree in remembrance or designing a collage of photos.
Managing loss and death is one of the most difficult aspects of life. But if handled correctly, the loss of a family pet can be a valuable opportunity to teach an important, yet tough life lesson about how to deal with loss in an open and healthy way.