Children And Pet Loss
When my beloved dog Toby passed away earlier this year, I lost my best friend, my loyal companion and a little piece of my heart, forever. Just six months prior to the passing of Toby, my beautiful cat Milly died in sudden, tragic circumstances – the sadness surrounding both their deaths has been intense.?
Saying goodbye to my companions was hard enough but explaining it to my two year-old daughter Charlotte has been even more difficult. Toby and Milly were the first things Charlotte smiled at, the first words she uttered were their names and they were involved in all her milestones. She did not know life without them and suddenly they were gone.
The death of a pet is often a child’s first experience with loss and the way that parents handle the situation can have a huge impact on how children are equipped to deal with death and loss later in life.
Kids don’t usually understand the permanency of death until they are 7 or 8. They will sometimes ask the same questions repeatedly, and may have what seems like a morbid fascination with asking questions that might seem taboo to adults. It is best to answer the questions as honestly and as directly as you can and go into as much detail as you feel comfortable with. Equip them with the knowledge that all living things must die, that death is part of the cycle of life and that now is their pet’s time to die.
It is important to speak plainly to children; use the correct grounded terms -dying, death, and dead. Using as much care and tact is important but ‘softening the blow’ by using euphemisms like ‘lost’, ‘gone’ or ‘gone to sleep’ actually create more confusion for children and hinder their ability to process and integrate the end of their pet’s life into the continuation of theirs. It robs them of an opportunity for valuable learning.
Speaking clearly and plainly about what happened – the circumstances and results – gives children a narrative that can link their pet’s disappearance from their lives. Whatever your choices, the most important thing to remember is that you want to be able to provide a narrative and sense of cohesion about the transition from living to dead.
Having a ceremony can also help. Children do grieve, although they don’t always express their grief in the way adults do. Allow them to see your own grief and sadness and explain to them why you are sad. Hold a ceremony where each family member can express their loss and love for the pet in their own way. Kids may like to draw a picture or write a poem. Encourage them be actively involved in the ceremony – to dress for it, to decorate the grave, and to invite their friends who may have known their pet. Place a symbolic stone or plant in the garden as a place your child can visit the pet and talk to it if they feel the need.
As a legacy to Toby, I have created a new website to help people through the difficult time surrounding the death of their pet – www.ourwonderfulpets.com. It is a place to seek comfort, write tributes and also read expert advice. I have included a lot of information about children and pet loss. I’m hoping that visitors to the site will feel validated in their feelings and know that, along with many others, I understand the extraordinary bond we share with our pets.
Dr Katrina is the host of Talk To The Animals, an animal behaviour show that airs on Channel 9 every Saturday at 4.30pm. For more pet care advice and pet-friendly accommodation options visit www.drkatrina.com.