Talking with a friend the other day, he mentioned that he wished he had been allowed to have a pet when he was younger. “Why’s that?” I asked. Of course, he replied with all the obvious things – he loves animals, as an only child he’d craved the companionship that a family pet can bring – but then he said something unexpected.
“I think that having a pet, and experiencing their death when you’re a child can be a really important way of learning how to think about death – this most taboo of subjects. How to grieve, how to move on, and so on.”
He’s right of course. While losing a family pet can be an extremely painful experience – no less for parents as well as their children – the way in which you talk to your children about it can have a huge (and emotionally very educational) impact on the way they will continue to think about other losses they will inevitably experience in their lives.
Here are few tips on how to broach this difficult topic with your children:
It cannot be stressed enough how important talking – and really talking – about the death of your beloved pet is for your children. If your pet is old or ill, start early to prepare your child for the fact. Of course, they will be distressed, and this is heartbreaking for any parent, but the more you are able to discuss the death before it happens, the better equipped your child will be for the grieving process and moving on.
At the same time, encourage your child to spend precious time with the pet while he is still alive. Such encouragement will teach your child the value of life, and how important it is to cherish our loved ones while they are still here.
Don’t underestimate the impact of the language you choose to talk about a pet’s death with your child. Try to avoid saying “put to sleep”. This can confuse children, especially if they are younger, and they might start being afraid of sleep themselves, worrying that the same thing will happen to them! Explain that the pet will soon be ‘at peace’, that it is the kindest thing you can do for your pet is to say goodbye to them in this way.
Never lie! Especially if the death is sudden, it might be tempting to say some soothing untruth, that the pet has run away or disappeared. This will only create false hope of them returning, and, if the children do eventually discover the truth, they may resent you for not being open and honest with them initially.
Marking your pet’s death with some kind of funeral or ceremony can be a really important way of allowing your child to put their emotions in order. Ask them if they want to create something – a poem or a painting – which can then be read out at the funeral, or displayed at the grave.
Studies have shown that allowing your children to process through creativity can be incredibly helpful in their grieving. Create a unique memorial to your pet, and remember to celebrate their life, rather than just mourn their death. Show your children to be thankful for the life shared, rather than simply sad for their death. Throw a party or ‘wake’ in their honor where you can all share funny or treasured stories or memories of your pet.
Last but of course not least, show your children all the love and affection they need during this time. Let them know that they are allowed to express their sadness however openly they want to, and that they can come to you to talk about it whenever they want.