Dear Parent Coach,
I took our sick cat to the vet recently, and was not expecting the outcome. She had to be put to sleep. My children, ages 5 and 7, were very shocked and upset when they heard the news after school. I'm trying to help them with this loss, but they are somewhat angry at me. How can I help them accept their pet's death?
Signed, A Sad Mom
Dear Sad Mom,
For many children, the loss of a beloved pet may be their first experience with death. For a child, this feeling might be similar to what an adult feels at losing a good friend. Parents are sometimes caught off guard by the depth of their child's feelings, but it is best to take these seriously. When the feelings are misdirected at a parent, in your case with anger, it is difficult to know how to provide comfort.
Depending on the ages of the children and the particular circumstances, children will respond differently to the news of a pet's death. If the pet has been seriously ill and gradual decline is evident, a child will have more time to consider death as a possibility. And parents will have the opportunity to gently guide a child through the process. A sudden and unexpected death of a pet, however, is harder to accept.
Whatever their child's reaction, parents should honor the grief process by allowing time for it to run its course, and by providing parental empathy and reassurance along the way. Running out immediately and getting a "replacement" pet will not take away the pain a child feels for Fluffy and the memories they shared.
Part of the grief process will include expression of various feelings, ranging from out-and-out anger and frustration, to inconsolable crying, to complete silence and sadness and the need to be left alone. Parents should encourage their children to express these feelings freely and without shame, and to ask questions surrounding the pet's death.
Children may wonder what illness their pet had, if the animal experienced any pain or suffering, and if their pet is now free from pain. They may also ask what the vet did to help, and what a vet actually does to put a pet "to sleep". Answer all of their questions seriously, with patience, and with truthful answers, as hard as it may be for children to hear. Use vocabulary that is clear for them to understand.
As with any difficult experience in life, a parent's attitude and empathy can greatly assist their child with the process of examining feelings, answering questions, and then moving forward. Parental patience, calm reassurance and love are keys to the healing process after the loss of a well loved pet. Lots of hugs are in order as well.
1. If a pet is very ill, prepare children in advance of a vet visit to warn them that the vet may not be able to heal their pet.
2. When a pet dies, assure your child that they did a good job of caring for their pet and that it wasn't their fault that the pet died.
3. After a death, gather the family for a time of remembering the things that were loved and enjoyed about the pet.
4. Young children can draw a picture of themselves with the pet, and older children may want to write a letter expressing their feelings. Display these in your home or make a family scrapbook to keep pictures and memories of the pet.
5. A family ceremony can be held for fond remembrance and to say goodbye to a beloved pet. This will help children to experience closure.
6. A small pet can be buried in the backyard and the spot designated with a garden stone or homemade marker with the pet's name.
7. Read books together about the loss of a pet, such as "The Ten Good Things About Barney". Other good books are also available.
8. Allow children sufficient time to mourn and experience grief before talking about getting a new pet.
9. When you sense your child's sadness, hold her close.
The Parent Coach
About the Author:
The Parent Coach, Jan Roberts, also teaches weekly parenting classes, coaches parents individually, and writes a weekly newspaper column.