Helping Your Child When a Pet Dies
I was recently reminded of the special bond between pets and children, one that persists even after the pet dies. When we lost our family dog almost three years ago, we dedicated a special “Winston star” in the sky where he would always live in our daughter’s heart. And, a few times a year, we leave him dog treats outside that get “mysteriously” eaten. I never thought how these simple things would keep him alive in our hearts for years until earlier this week when Olivia decided she wanted to write to Winston.
It reminded me how hard it was for us to help Olivia navigate this important life event while we were mourning. Losing a family pet is never easy but there are ways to help your child cope when a pet dies. Here are a few strategies that worked for our family.
Supporting Kids after the Death of a Pet
- If possible, prepare your child in advance of pet’s death. Our dog was sick for an extended period with kidney failure. We knew when the end was near and we started preparing our daughter (age 4 at the time). We spoke about how his illness was hurting his body despite the vet trying to help him get well. We explained the difference from when she is sick and the doctor helps her. We didn’t want her to be afraid of getting sick like Winston. We also made sure she said goodbye on the morning of his death. This was a hard decision to make but I’m glad we chose to allow her a final hug.
- Answer questions in a factual but appropriate way for the child’s age. Olivia had a lot of questions about our dog’s illness and why he couldn’t get better. We were honest with her about kidney disease and what that meant from a 4-year old’s perspective. She wanted to know what would happen to him after he died. So we talked about how Winston would join nona’s dog in a special park for pets that died. We discussed how we would always have love in our hearts for him even when he is not here physically.
- Allow your child to grieve the loss of a pet in her own way. Everybody grieves differently and kids are no exception. Be prepared for and open to your child’s reaction which can range from crying to subdued or even very little emotion. There’s no time limit on emotions. Some kids may seem to get over it quickly but want to talk about it months later. Others may be sad for an extended period of time. Like any emotional life event, the best bet is to just be there for your child when needed. If you have concerns, don’t hesitate to seek your pediatrician’s advice.
- Encourage children to share memories of their pets. Soon after his death, we shared many of our Winston stories and photos with Olivia. We encouraged her to talk about her memories, no matter how small. “Remember last week when Winston licked your toes and it felt funny.” We also got her a special framed photo of her and Winston for her room as a way to remember him.
- Communicate with your child’s teachers or caregivers. Let teachers or caregivers know about your pet’s death and how you are communicating with your child. Provide as much details as you can, including language & terminology. That way the teacher knows how to respond to your child should the subject come up.
- Keep your pet’s memory alive. We dedicated the “star” and started the tradition of leaving dog treats outside. On special occasions, such as Christmas, Winston sometimes leaves a small present in return. You don’t have to do anything elaborate, sometimes just sharing a pet’s photo album is enough.
It’s almost three years later and I love how Olivia still thinks of Winston. Here is her letter to him.