5 Ways to Help Your Kids When the Family Pet DiesPublished June 27, 2011
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There’s some good news to this though. The grieving rocess your kids will go through, no matter their age, will be similar to your own. And any parent can use that knowledge to help the entire family address the grief associated with a pet's death in a healthy way. Here’s how to start the process.
1. Reflect on Your Pet’s Relationship with Each Family Member
Your pet was different things to different people in your family. Just considering all of the parts she played will provide some insight into how each member of your family is feeling. “Pet loss can be very traumatic to a child, depending on the important role the pet played in the child's life: companion, friend, admirer, playmate, defender, love object, sibling, or confidante,” says Marty Tousley, a board-certified clinical nurse specialist bereavement counselor in Phoenix, AZ.
“When a cherished pet dies, the pain can be deep and enduring, and the trauma can result in feelings of insecurity, anxiety, anger, guilt, helplessness, distrust and fear,” she says. Knowing who your pet was to each family member can help you sort through so many feelings.
2. Listen to Your Kids
The best way to anticipate and help your kids with these emotions is to listen. It may seem obvious now, but when you’ve got your own tough questions, it can be easy to get distracted.
“More important than trying to determine “what to say” to your child is to listen to what your child wants to say,” says Moira Allen, author of Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet and host of the Pet Loss Support Page. “Let the child lead the discussion; the child’s questions (no matter what the age) will give a parent the best clues as to what issues are really on that child’s mind.”
Some of this will depend on your child’s age and how much ground you’ve already covered on the topic of death and dying. “You do have to keep in mind the development stages of children and what they comprehend about death at each stage,” says Charlene Douglas, founder of Through The Rainbow Passage - Pet Loss Support and Bereavement Center.
For instance, a younger child will say they understand what death or dying is, but then ask you when the pet is coming back. “They do not always understand the finality of it,” she says.
3. Show Your Feelings
Overall though, most kids have the same two major reactions as most adults: guilt and anger, says Allen.
Adults feel guilty about whatever caused the pet’s death while children often feel guilt over relationship issues: “I didn’t pet him the night before he died. He wanted attention and I ignored him,” she adds.
Ultimately, we cannot change what we did or did not do, says Enid Traisman, director of the Pet Loss Support and Art Therapy programs at Dove Lewis Animal Hospital in Portalnd, OR. “I believe that each of us tried to do the best we could, and did it with the intention of love.”
With anger, just remember that your child isn’t lashing out at you. He’s feeling a profound sense of hurt over the loss, Allen says.
As the parent, while no one recommends getting angry, don’t feel that you have to fake keeping completely calm. Instead, talk as a family, cry together, let your kids know you share their feelings.
4. Tell the Truth
“Never lie to your child,” says Allen. A child needs the closure of knowing that a pet is gone forever, no matter how painful this might be, so don’t give in to the temptation of making up stories.
“Healthy communication means honest communication,” she says.
5. Say Goodbye Together
Part of an honest communication about death is finding a way to say goodbye. “As far as rituals go, it is extremely important to say goodbye in some fashion; This could take the shape of an actual funeral/burial, a letter the family writes together to the pet, a tree you plant, or a donation you are all involved in to a local humane shelter,” says Douglas.
There’s no “right” way to do this, adds Allen. “The key is to come together and honor the memory of the pet through a ceremony that recognizes the love that everyone in the family felt for that pet, and the pain that they feel for their loss.”