The death of a pet is a heartbreaking event for the whole family. Sometimes the pet’s passing is a child’s first experience with losing a loved one. It’s important that we help our children process their feelings as they find their way through this traumatic emotional experience.
I remember feeling devastated when my childhood cats made their way to the Rainbow Bridge. Even though my mother was compassionate and attentive to my feelings, my healing was a process. No matter what our age, it’s impossible to expect a speedy recovery when we lose a family member or friend with whom we’ve developed a strong bond. And most people I know consider their pets family members.
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1. Be honest
Whether a pet is going to be euthanized or dies suddenly, it’s critical we demonstrate age-appropriate honesty with our children. Telling them the pet will be “put to sleep” with no further explanation can be confusing for small children. Instead, tell the child that the pet will no longer be in pain or suffering with an illness. Express that the decision was really hard for you to make, but that it’s the most humane choice.
The child may become angry about the choice, and that’s a completely normal response. That’s why it’s especially important to be honest with your own feelings. Staying strong for the child’s sake isn’t real, and the child will likely be confused as to why you’re not upset about losing the dear pet. Sadness, anger, emptiness, and guilt are all valid emotions, and it’s important to express them and allow your child to express them as well.
2. Be present
After the death of a beloved family pet, some children have many questions, and some fall silent and internalize their feelings. It’s necessary to be present with them in both of those instances. Make sure your children know that, even if they don’t feel like talking now, you are available when they are ready. My daughter has always been a talker and my son tends to clam up when it comes to talking about emotions. I always find the best time to talk to my kids about sensitive subjects is in their room right before bedtime. It’s usually quiet, there’s some privacy, and they feel comfortable in their own space.
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3. Have closure
I don’t remember burying deceased pets when I was a kid, but I think some sort of closure is healing and honors the life of the animal. Since we’ve moved into our current house, we’ve lost one cat. His name was Fritz, and he lived on this earth a few short years. His kidneys failed and his condition was too far along when we finally received a diagnosis. My kids were four and six when he died, so it was the first time they could really understand what was happening with a pet’s passing.
We wrapped him in his favorite blanket and buried him on the back edge of our backyard, along with his favorite toys and treats. We chose and placed a special rock on top of his little grave, and we each took turns recalling our favorite memories of him. It was special and my kids still talk about the ceremony. When my mom’s cat Spooker died, she brought him to our house and we buried him beside Fritz. Even if you don’t bury your pet or scatter his ashes in a special place, you can create some closure by making a memorial with his favorite cat toys and treats, photos, and a candle. I’ve even heard of families coming together and creating a collage with words and images that remind them of their dearly departed pet.
4. Allow healing
Grief is not a single event — it’s a process. Just because you’ve physically created closure, that doesn’t mean the feeling stops. Your child may continue to express questions, memories, or observations for days, weeks, or months following the death. The kids who internalize their emotions may not even want to talk until much later after the passing. They may not verbalize a lot, but there’s a lot going on in their heads. Encourage your kids to write a letter to the pet or draw a picture of him. You can also look at photos and celebrate the life of your loved one. Hugs help a whole lot, too.
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5. Don’t immediately adopt another pet
Some people think that running out and adopting another pet right away will distract the child from the pain and help them transition more quickly through the grieving process. First of all, the deceased pet can never be “replaced.” And how can we expect our kids to learn how to move through grief and loss in a healthy way if we don’t give them the time and space to process all of it? Each family is different, and there’s no clear-cut answer for how long you should wait before adopting again. I am clear, however, that it should be after all family members have had the opportunity to truly honor the passed pet and their own feelings of grief.
How have you helped your child deal with the death of a family pet? Tell us about it in the comments.
Photo: A little girl giving a kitten a hug by Shutterstock