There’s a reason why the whole “our pet went to the farm to live with grandma” has become a go-to trope for many stories, films, and television shows every time a fictional family loses a beloved fur baby. None of us want to have to deal with the pain and discomfort of having to explain to children the reality of death and mortality.
But losing a pet can be a teachable moment for our kids. We would be paving the way for them to become mature and emotionally healthy adults who are attuned to their feelings of grief and mourning. If they grow up in a home where these realities are shoved under the rug, we run the risk of raising emotionally-constipated adults who can’t access their pain or can’t express it in healthy and productive ways.
Death and loss are realities we need to face no matter our age, and it is our job as parents to ensure that our kids grow up with a healthy view of it. Here are some tips for helping your children grieve and heal properly from the loss of a pet.
Avoid using metaphors
If you must disclose to your kid that their pet has died, avoid cushioning the blow by using idioms or metaphors like the pet going to live on a farm or vague terms like “somewhere better.” If your family is religious, tell your kid their pet succumbed to disease and has gone home to heaven and that they will see each other one day. For irreligious families, you can use scientific and medical terms as well. Whatever route you choose, make sure to spare them too many details that may cause them trauma, like a visual picture of what happened to the pet.
The key to being factual without hurting them is to be gentle, kind, compassionate, and empathetic. Don’t be cold and unfeeling when you lay down the facts of the situation. Gently caress their backs or hair, use your gentle voice, and hug them when they start crying. Anything that needs to be said, no matter how hurtful, can be expressed as long as it is done with love and compassion.
Embrace rituals and allow them to say goodbye
Funeral services have been a part of our civilization since time immemorial, and for good reason: They are primarily for those who were left behind. These rituals and services allow us to say goodbye, giving us a healthy channel for closure. You can use these rituals to teach your kids to close this chapter in healthy and productive ways.
Make room for all the wonderful memories. Consider having your pet preserved through taxidermy or have their image printed on jewelry. Go around the table and encourage everyone to share their favorite stories and memories about your fur baby. When you let your child experience these rituals, you send the message that their grief is important, their feelings of loss are valid, and they have a support system that they can lean on as they say goodbye.
Tailor your talk according to the child’s age
When talking to your kid about the death of their pet, take their age into account.
- For kids aged two and under, they might need more cuddles than words. Provide them with more attention and love during this difficult time.
- For two to five years old, you may have to explain the concept of permanence more than once.
- If your kid is aged six to eight, they are more likely to understand the permanence of death, but this may be the first time they learn that it can happen to them.
- Kids ages nine to 11 are more likely to know that death is inevitable and that it can happen to them and someone they love anytime.
There’s a chance your kid may experience some form of guilt about the death of their pet, or they might somehow feel like they could have done more. Be quick to assure them that there was nothing they could have done and that it’s not their fault. And no matter their age, make a habit of comforting them physically, verbally, and emotionally weeks and even months after the loss.
Having pets can be a great way for kids to learn responsibility and the value of life, but it can also be a painful way to teach them about the concept and permanence of death. Be honest but gentle, and be their pillar of strength and comfort. When they see their parents as people attuned to their feelings, they will be more likely to grow up into emotionally healthy adults.