Unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way how to explain the death of a family pet to our children. Our family pet, a boxer name Saffaron, died last week.
It sort of makes me feel sick to even refer to her as a dog because she was so much more than that to our family. She was one of us. She was a sister and a daughter and above all else, she was loved.
When she passed, I wasnâ€™t sure how to explain the situation to our daughters, especially since I am having a hard time processing the loss myself. There is definitely a hole in our hearts where Saffaron should be.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, for many children, their first real experience with loss occurs when a pet dies. Sadly for us, we experienced a miscarriage earlier this year and this loss just feels like it came too soon after for all of us.
When a pet dies, especially one that is considered a family member, children need consolation, love and support more than they need complicated medical explanations.Â Those explanations will only confuse them and are not what they need. They need to make sense of what is happening on their own level.
Children’s reactions to the death of a pet differ depending on their age and developmental level.Â Children 3 to 5 years of age see death as temporary and potentially reversible.Â Children ages 6 and 8 begin to develop a more realistic understanding of the nature and consequences of death.
It is not until 9 years of age that children can fully understand that death is permanent and final.Â Very young children should be told that when a pet dies, it stops moving, doesn’t see or hear anymore, and won’t wake up again. They may need to have this explanation repeated several times.
This is very true. Our girls are 5 and 7 and have had very different reactions to the death of our dog. Our 7-year-old seems to comprehend that the dog was sick and has died. She is sad but stoic. She accepts it, even though she does not like it.
The 5-year-old, on the other hand, has asked me 5 separate times in the last 3 days where the dog is. I explained that the dog was very sick and died and now she has gone to heaven to wait for us. My daughter then replied, â€œI know that she died but what happened to her body?â€
I was stumped. How do you explain that she is cremated? I told her that our soul is what is inside of us and that has already gone on and is pain free and happy now. Then we both cry and move on until she asks again.
There are many ways parents can tell their children that a family pet has passed on.Â It is helpful to make children as comfortable as possible when you tell. Itâ€™s also very important to be honest when telling your child that a pet has died. Trying to protect children with vague explanations can create anxiety and confusion.
Children are curious and often have questions after a pet dies. Why did my pet die? Is it my fault? Where does my pet’s body go? Will I ever see my pet again? If I wish hard and am really good can I make my pet come back? Does death last forever?
It is important to answer questions simply and honestly and on the childâ€™s level. Children may experience sadness, anger, fear, denial, and guilt when their pet dies.
When a pet is sick or dying, spend time talking with your child about his/her feelings. If possible, it is helpful to have the child say goodbye before the pet dies.Â Let your child know it is normal to miss pets and be sad after they die. Encourage children to come to you with any questions or for comfort.
The girls knew that Saffaron was up in years and had gotten very sick last week. We all knew that every day with her was a gift. She died at home. They did not see her in those final minutes and I am thankful for that. She had what appeared to be a heart attack. We tried to resuscitate her and rush her to the emergency veterinarian hospital but she died on the way.
There is no â€œrightâ€ way for children to mourn their pets. They need to be given time to remember their pets. It helps to be able to talk about the pet openly with friends and family.
Let your child mourn the loss of their pet in their own way.Â They need to be able to feel their feelings. After a pet has died, children may want to bury the pet, make a memorial, or have a ceremony. You may notice your child writing poems and stories, or drawings of their beloved pet. It is a bad idea to immediately replace the pet that has died.
As in our case, the death of your pet may cause a child to remember other painful losses, like the baby we lost in May. A child who appears to be overwhelmed by their grief and not able to function in their normal routine may benefit from an evaluation by a child psychiatrist.
Honestly, the best thing you can do is be honest and open with your child. The pain that you are feeling at the loss is the same that your child is feeling. Be available and understanding while they go through this. They will find their way. It hurts to lose someone you love and in many cases, for children, this is their first experience with losing someone close to them.
How do you explain loss to your children?
Photo Source: The TRUTH about Motherhood