One of the saddest questions I get from parents is how to help a child cope with the death of a pet. Let me see if I can provide some information on this all too common topic.
First, it is important to understand that how a child deals with a pet’s death depends largely on their age and personality. For example, until children are age 5 or 6, their view of the word is very concrete, so they don’t understand death. But they might understand your telling them that a pet’s body was not working anymore and cannot be fixed.
Children may not understand that the pet’s condition is permanent, and you may have to repeat the fact that the pet cannot be fixed and will not come back. A key concept at this age, and even as your child gets older, is that your child may feel they are to blame for this happening. Obviously, you need to reassure your child more than once in the weeks and months that follow that this is not the case at all.
Avoid phrases such as the pet “went away” or “went to sleep,” since children may become fearful when you tell them a family member is going away or going to sleep.
Kids between 6 and 10 years of age do understand the finality of death but don’t quite understand that it will eventually happen to them one day. Providing accurate, simple, clear and honest answers to their questions is the best way to talk with children at this age.
Teens understand that eventually everyone dies. They may experience some guilt or anger about the pet’s death, even at this age. It is important to encourage them to express and share their grief, anger or sadness.
Parents, sharing your own grief and even tears in front of your child or teen may actually help your young one deal with their own emotional pain and loss. Make sure your child – at any age – knows that despite the loss, you can continue to love and talk about the happy memories of the pet forever. And maybe over time you can welcome a new pet into the family.
Your child’s doctor or your pet’s veterinarian can help and provide access to books, and if necessary, counselors, to help a child and family go through this difficult time.
Hopefully tips like this will bring peace of mind to you and your children when it comes to the pet-ticulars of helping them deal with the death of a family pet.
Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.