When the family pet dies, young children often feel the worst pain. After all, they can’t begin to comprehend the concept of death—all they know is that they’ve lost their cherished companion and best friend. And they need your love and support to help them understand and accept such a difficult loss.
Start by not trying to shield your child from heartache, even though your preprogrammed instincts may scream otherwise. Child experts caution that by being overprotective, you risk sending the wrong message—that it’s not OK to mourn or talk about the deceased pet—even though you mean well.
Instead, let your child grieve with you. Cry alongside him or her if necessary. And answer any questions honestly and sympathetically. Some tips to help kids weather the storm:
• Talk straight. Avoid clichés such as “Fluffy’s gone to be with the other bunnies.” Your child might interpret that to mean Fluffy will return.
• Bring back memories. Encourage your child to recall fun times, write a short story or even sing a song about the pet. The idea is to honor the child’s need to express emotion.
• Boost their security. A pet’s death may lead your child to ask why people get old and die. Explain the process simply and assure him or her that you and your child still have many long years ahead. Seal the deal with a kiss or a hug.
• Let them be. Your child may be affected by a pet’s loss for only a few days, or recovery may take several weeks. No two children react the same. However, if he or she is still blue after a month, talk to your pediatrician or counselor to make sure there’s no underlying problem.
Sooner or later, the idea of getting another pet will come up. Experts suggest waiting until your child seems receptive to the idea. Again, that could happen tomorrow or not for several months.
But don’t rush into getting another pet in the hope that it will soothe your child’s hurt. No new animal can take the place of the lost pet. Besides, a new puppy or kitten will have its own personality and will need time to adjust to its new home and family. It’s best to wait. That way, everyone—including the new pet—is ready to love, and be loved, again.