7 Ways Children Can Say Goodbye to Pets

By Allen and Linda Anderson

Pets are family members. Children relate to animals as their friends, protectors, and playmates. When the family pet dies, it is often the child’s first exposure to death and can cause him or her to feel confused and upset.

From our research on children and pet loss, as well as our experiences with our own children, we have compiled a list of the major considerations for helping youngsters deal with their grief.

Click here to read tips on helping your child cope with pet loss.

Allen and Linda Anderson are founders of the Angel Animals Network. Text is reprinted from "Saying Goodbye to Angel Animals." Copyright 2008 by Allen and Linda Anderson. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com or 800/972-6657 ext. 52.

Avoid Euphemisms

When telling children what happened, avoid euphemisms such as, “We had to put Buffy to sleep,” “Buffy got sick and died,” “God took Buffy to heaven,” or “Buffy has gone away.” All of these ways of describing death can be confusing to children and can cause them to fear going to sleep or getting sick, to fear or feel angry toward God, or to believe the pet will come back someday.

Linda M. Peterson writes in “Surviving the Heartbreak of Choosing Death for Your Pet” that a healthy, clear, factual explanation to a child might sound something like this: “When Max died, his body stopped working. He [couldn’t] breathe, eat, hear, see, go to the bathroom, or play with his friends anymore.” She suggests that a child will be encouraged to talk about feelings concerning death and loss.

Involve your children in the animal’s memorial service and rituals or in creating mementos to commemorate your pet’s life. Tell your child what has been done with the animal’s body.

Explain Death Age-Appropriately

Remember that children grieve differently from adults. Their sadness will come and go and may recur over longer periods of time. Children also deal with grief according to their level of maturation. They will be able to understand death only in ways that are appropriate for their age. Explaining death has similarities to teaching children about sex: it’s best to let the children ask questions and to answer them with only as much information as they require at the time.

Use Art and Storytelling

Often children cannot express or articulate what they are feeling with regard to grief, loss, and death. Sit with them while they draw pictures of their animal friend and tell their own stories of what it was like to live with the pet and how they feel now that the pet is gone. Discern if your child feels responsible for the animal’s death.

Children may believe that somehow they caused the death, perhaps by not taking care of or feeding the animal properly. You can gently correct these assumptions. Encourage children to play and act out what they think has happened to the animal and what they believe is going on with the animal physically and spiritually.

Don't Make Death Sound Too Happy

Explain what happens after death according to your own philosophical, cultural, religious, or spiritual beliefs without making the child think that death is such a “happy” event that it is preferable to living.

Grieve with Your Children

Don’t be afraid to grieve in front of your child. When you mourn openly, you let your child know that it’s okay to be sad, to cry, and to miss the family pet.

Get Professional Help, If Necessary

If your child is grieving excessively, withdrawing, or acting out, don’t hesitate to get professional help. A counselor who specializes in children’s grieving can do wonders to help a child sort through his or her thoughts and emotions about a pet’s death. A child therapist can also help the entire family deal with other issues that may be complicating their grief over the loss of a pet.

Don't Rush Into Adoption

Allow the grief process to take its natural course by not rushing into a new adoption. Wait a while before adopting another pet. Let your child have all the time he or she needs for mourning. If or when your child wants a new pet, explain the ways in which this new one may be different from your previous pet.

Perhaps Wallace Sife best sums up the advice for grieving children and their caregivers when he writes, “Reminisce, fondly, with the children about the pet. Use pictures, if possible. Associate positive, good events with the pet’s memory. Emphasize that as long as we remember and love that pet, he or she will always be part of us.”

More Help for Your Child

Need more information? For children, you can hardly do better than Fred Rogers’s book “When a Pet Dies.” In the introduction Rogers writes, “As you and your children look at the photos and read the text, I hope you’ll find it possible to share your real feelings about a pet’s dying. As for what happens after death, I believe that’s best discussed in light of each family’s traditions and beliefs. Those traditions and beliefs are important things to share with your children if and when they ask!"

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