Many families have multiple pets, and a pet’s life is invariably much shorter than a human’s life, certain turtle species excluded. This means most children are likely to experience the death of a pet sometime during childhood. Although not as significant as the loss of a loved one, our pets have become an extended part of the family, and many treat them just like people. Children are especially likely to be hit hard by the death of a pet.
Should you tell children about the death of a pet?
When a family pet dies, many parents are tempted to hide it from children. They rush out to buy a new goldfish that looks exactly like the old one, or they make up a story about how Fido must have run off to start a new family with his lady friend. Eager to avoid a difficult discussion and unsure how to best broach the topic, they resort to lies and deception.
This is a mistake. Not only can this deceit come back to haunt you, causing your children more confusion and suffering than the truth would bring, but you’re missing out on a golden opportunity. Grieving over the death of a pet gives children valuable practice coping with loss, and the death of a beloved pet is good preparation for dealing with the death of a person (Schowalter, 1974), an inevitable heartache they’ll eventually have to confront, hopefully much later in life.
Trying to hide the subject also sends a disturbing message to children. Kids are masters at reading between the lines, and the mere fact that you tried to conceal it suggests that they aren’t capable of confronting this loss, or that it’s too horrific to even speak about. Much like sex, the less it’s talked about and the more the subject is concealed in shame or brushed under the rug, the more you pack the subject with negative psychological energy.
How to tell kids about the death of a pet
A straightforward approach works best. Start by saying, “I have something sad to tell you,” and then hit them with the news. Finish by asking them if there’s any questions they have or anything they want to talk about. This conversation needn’t be formal, just give some consideration to the setting, in case they do react poorly. You don’t want to drag a crying child through the supermarket, or ruin a playdate they had planned. If, however, they beat you to the punch and ask about their pet before you’ve had a chance to break the news, you should go ahead and tell them.
Do pets go to heaven?
One quandary many parents struggle with is what to tell their children about the afterlife (if any) of a dead pet. Some religious authorities promote the idea that pets have no soul, and therefore aren’t entitled to enjoy the same assurances humans receive. Not only am I unaware of any scripture that could support such a notion, but it robs kids of a comforting thought that might soften the blow.
My personal view is that you should make whatever beliefs you have about people consistent with what you tell kids about pets. If people go to heaven, why can’t a beloved pet be there too, especially if they gave their human companion joy? If people are resurrected to paradise, why not pets?
Better yet, leave the question open for discussion and deflect it back to them: “What do you think happens to a pet after they die?” Maybe there’s a doggie heaven with unlimited rabbits (or mailmen) to chase and a fire hydrant on every corner. Maybe her spirit slipped into another dimension and is still wandering the house, only we can’t see her. Leaving the question open like this and avoiding rigid beliefs allows children to develop a theory that’s comforting to them.
How children react to the death of a pet
Children’s reactions to the death of a pet can be all over the place, ranging from casual acceptance to significant grief. On one hand, studies have shown that children are less likely to see a distinction between pets and people, and are more likely to treat them as equals in morality games. So in that sense, a child might perceive less of a distinction between a beloved pet dying and a family member dying, in which case they could be extremely distraught. Some children will undergo a lengthy grieving process just as they might with people.
On the other hand, kids are a lot more pragmatic about death than adults give them credit for. In one of my classes we used to have a pet python, and one of the highlights for our pre-k kids was when they got to watch him eat a live mouse. We’d set the cage on a table, deposit the mouse, and all 30 of them would crowd around to watch. Not a single one showed the slightest disturbance because of it, nor did I hear any complaints from their parents later about any nightmares or lingering discomfort. On the contrary: they generally seemed quite fascinated by it all, and eager to tell their parents all about it.
Of course, it was their pet doing the eating, so this no doubt changed the dynamics of the situation. Or maybe we were gifted with a class of budding 4-year-old psychopaths. At any rate, it’s an example of how children can be much more comfortable around death than adults give them credit for. It’s typically the adults, not the children, who have more of a discomfort problem.
Some kids, upon learning the news, may react very matter-of-factly with little emotion at all. They’ll be more concerned with getting a new pet than grieving the old one. I wouldn’t read a whole lot into this, either. Whatever reaction your child has is probably within the range of normal, and perfectly right for them. You shouldn’t stress yourself out trying to analyze how normal or abnormal their reaction seems to you.
Grieving a pet
Here are a few activities you can do with children who are grieving the death of a pet:
Give a child crayons and paper and encourage them to draw a picture based on a fond memory they have about this pet. Once they’re through, have them write or dictate a story to go along with it.
Put together a special photo album involving your pet, including both pictures and note cards with favorite stories or memories.
Have kids write a letter as if they were talking to their pet, detailing all the things they would like to say. Conduct a special ceremony to read these letters, and then burn or bury them.
Put together a video celebrating your pet’s life from whatever clips you have saved. Mix it with the kids telling stories about their pet or telling the videographer how much their pet meant.
Print a Death of a Pet Coloring Page for your child
Throwing a funeral for your pet
Consider conducting a little funeral for your pet, just as you would with people. Include children in the planning process, explaining what a wake or funeral typically entails and then encouraging them to come up with their own ideas about what their pet’s funeral should be. Here are some suggestions…
Create either a tombstone or burial rocks by having kids paint assorted stones or a slab of wood (or both).
Create posters to display at the funeral just like the ones they have at wakes, with pictures of your pet or artwork from the kids.
Encourage them to prepare a few words they’d like to read at the funeral.
Have kids gather flowers for the funeral, either by picking local fauna or by taking a trip to a nursery or florist.
Make other decorations for the ceremony.
Come up with a fun activity to do together after the funeral to celebrate the life of your pet (a trip to a park, a walk through the forest, a walk through the dog park with doggie treats, etc.).
To conduct your funeral, pick a place to bury the deceased, and have children help set the tombstone or arrange the burial stones. If you do this in your yard or somewhere nearby, it will give your kids a symbolic location they can visit whenever they miss their pet or feel emotional.
If a pet was cremated, you can still do most of these same activities, just have them revolve around a ceremony to spread your pet’s ashes somewhere meaningful.
Properly grieving the loss of a pet
While these activities can help children grieve and provide an outlet for their emotions in the aftermath of a pet’s death, it’s also important not to get too carried away with it all to the point where you’re dwelling on this loss or inflating the event beyond what it needs to be. You want to encourage kids to embrace their emotions an get practice dealing with grief without nursing those emotions or promoting sadness that may not be there. So play it by ear, and adjust to the unique needs of your children.
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