When a Child's Pet Dies

BY: Helen Fitzgerald

 

People who have never had pets don't know what they're missing. A dog, cat, or other pet can add greatly to the richness of life and provide wonderful companionship for a master or mistress of any age. This is particularly true for children. A pet provides a child with unconditional love and a sense of being needed and appreciated. While grown-ups and older siblings have their own priorities, a child's pet is usually a reliable playmate, bedmate, and companion. So when a pet dies, this loss can be very hard on a child.

Sad as it may be, the death of a pet can be an important learning experience for a child, preparing her or him for even more painful losses that are bound to come some day. Much as we like to dismiss the thought, all life is terminal, including our own. Rather than shield our children from this reality, it is far better that they learn about it as they are growing up.

As a parent, how can you help your child not only mourn the loss of her pet but learn from the experience? To begin with, I would suggest that you have a talk with her about what she would like to do. Children like ceremonies, and she might want to have a little funeral and burial service. Or she might prefer to have the veterinarian take care of the body. In any case, her answers will give you a clue to her feelings. If she cries, let her cry; this is a natural part of the process of grief.

Sad as it may be, the death of a pet can be an important learning experience for a child, preparing her or him for even more painful losses that are bound to come some day.

The meaning of death is something that is hard for children to grasp. Young children, especially, will seem to understand when you tell them that someone has died, only to ask a little later when that person will be coming home. The death of a pet provides an opportunity to explain this difficult concept more fully.

When you have that talk with your child, I suggest you begin by discussing what life meant to the pet. Let's say the family dog, Tiger, has died. When Tiger was alive, he could bark, he could eat--oh, how he could eat. He could retrieve a ball, he could "go to the bathroom." After considering together all the things Tiger enjoyed in life, you could add: "Tiger can't do those things anymore. He will never be able to do them again." I find that children are deeply moved by this explanation of the meaning of death.

There are a number of excellent books that can help you discuss this with your child. Two of my favorites are "The Tenth Good Thing About Barney," by Judith Viorst (also available in video form), and "I'll Always Love You," by Hans Wilhelm. Both stories are about the death of beloved pets and are suitable for young children.

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