Today's guest blogger is Michele Pich, M.A., M.S., a veterinary grief counselor and instructor at Penn Vet's Ryan Hospital.
Do I tell them beforehand that it's coming? Should I tell them when he's sick? Do I wait until afterward and say he ran away or went to a farm? These are all questions that parents ask when it comes to preparing to discuss with their kids about the loss of a beloved family pet.
Existing grief research supports trying to be as honest and direct with your kids as possible. But, you need to take into account their age and level of emotional development. Despite the fact that pet loss is often the first loss that children experience, there is a lack of research addressing the issue. Many pet grief support professionals utilize human loss literature. In addition, there are children's books available (some of which are discussed in this article) that talk about pet loss in a story setting, which may be useful for helping kids cope.
My neighbor helped her son understand the death of my dog by drawing pictures of Cleo sitting on a cloud "in heaven". Another friend sat her kids down in the final weeks before their cat Jimmy passed away and talked honesty about the fact that he was aging and getting sick, and may not live much longer. Since her kids had been through this before with previous pets, they already knew the meaning of the term "put down".
While some euphemisms are okay to use, avoid saying "put to sleep". Children are literal in their comprehension. If children hear that their beloved dog is going to be "put to sleep" and will never come home to be with the family again, they may fear their own bedtime, thinking that they might not see mommy or daddy again either. It is best to use very direct terms, such as "death" or "dying".
In my friend's case, by being open and honest with her children before the loss, she was able to include them in some of the decision-making and allow them to have time to say good-bye to their life-long buddy. While children may not decide when it is time to let a pet go, they can take part in pre-death cuddle sessions and have a chance to tell their animal companions how much they love them.
Children need the structure of setting aside time to grieve pre- and post-death, when possible, and may need more tactile ways to express their sadness over the loss.
A few tips for helping kids cope with the loss of a pet:
Remember, the death of a pet does not mean the end of the bond or the love. You and your children can continue to talk about and remember the wonderful times you had together.