How to Explain the Death of a Pet to your Child
Children are delightfully innocent beings and parents go to great lengths to shelter them from anything that can physically injure them or break their heart. Parents also feel the need to give children all of life’s little things that can bring joy to their child’s face. Most people will agree there is nothing wrong with this to a certain extent. Where do you draw the line? How much can a child really be sheltered?
There are some tough issues that parents can approach head on. Doing so will probably cause the child some heart break, but in the long run learning life lessons at a young age can have long lasting beneficial effects. One instance where parents should be direct with the child is when their beloved pet dies.
Don’t Lie to your Child
For some, the first thing that comes to mind when a pet dies is they must protect the child and shelter them from the truth. It’s tempting to say Fido or Fluffy ran away or found a new home. These tactics do no favors for the child. It may be easier on the parent to avoid the drama and sadness, but avoiding the truth is not a good approach to this situation.
Instead, the child deserves to know the truth about what happened. This may come as a shock, but children can be very resilient, even much more so than adults. Their innocent nature gives them a unique perspective on life that has not yet been altered by time and experiences like those of grown ups. They deserve a fair bit of credit for being able to handle tough situations.
When to Tell Them
No matter what age the child is, when approaching them to deliver the bad news about the demise of their pet, be sure to do so at a time in the day when they are calm. Don’t approach a child when they are hungry, thirsty, tired, or in the middle of a burst of energy. Timing can be everything. Avoid talking about this subject right before bedtime too.
Talking to Younger Children about Death
The age of the child will play a part in how much information they are going to need to hear. Little ones from about two to four years old do not need a detailed explanation of what happened to their pet. Use simple statements such as “Fido is gone” or “We will not see Fluffy anymore”. They will likely ask why if their vocabulary allows. A sufficient reply is “Fido lives in heaven now” or “Fluffy has gone to live in heaven”.
Keeping statements simple and factual without overwhelming amounts of detail is all a young child needs to hear. It may need to be repeated over the course of a few days, but after 5 days they will have accepted it and will stop asking about their pet as much. If they respond with sadness or anger, validate their feelings by acknowledging them. “I know you are sad. I am sad too.” Again, keep the statements simple and show them it is okay to have feelings.
Children from 5-7 years old can also be spared the details. Explain to them what exactly it means when something dies. “Fido has died. He lived a long life, but it was his time to go to heaven. Animals and people do not live forever. When they die, they do not come back to our Earth. They live in heaven.” They need to understand that death is final. Fluffy is gone for good, not just on vacation for a few weeks.
This age set will likely need some consoling. They were attached to their pet and will feel the pain of that loss. Do not console them with food or treats. It’s also not a good idea to run out for a new pet right away. That can come later on, but they need time to process their feelings. Adding a new pet to the equation too soon can inhibit the child from bonding with the new pet because of their grief. Simply being there for the child with hugs and kisses is the best form of consolation a parent can offer.
When telling older children about the death of a pet, it is okay to give them a few more details. They will be curious to know the “why” and “how” of their pet’s passing. Whether it was illness, old age, or an injury, children 8 and up can handle knowing what happened. There is no need to elaborate too much on the details. “Fluffy was hit by a car. She had too many injuries and the veterinarian could not save her. She did not suffer very much, and now she lives in heaven. In heaven she does not have pain and she can romp and play with all of the other doggies and kitties.”
Answer any questions they have truthfully. Avoiding the truth will only cause them to wonder more about it. They can come to their own conclusions and create a scenario of what is going on that may be worse than the actual situation.
There is nothing wrong with sheltering children from some of the bad things in the world, but parents must realize that there are some things kids need to know and can handle. Teaching them how to deal with their feelings regarding a tough situation at a young age is giving them a life-long skill in dealing with emotions.