Coping Skills: Explaining the Loss of a Pet to a Child

Sometimes it falls to us as adults to help a child deal with the passing of a beloved four-footed family member. When that happens we need to be very careful in our explanations.
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Golden retriever dog
Golden retriever dog

Relationships are not limited to adults. We have relationships with children and with our pets too. Sometimes it falls to us as adults to help a child deal with the passing of a beloved four-footed family member. When that happens we need to be very careful in our explanations.

A friend, whose elderly, beloved old yellow Labrador, Good Dog, had passed away, told her 4-year-old son that "Good Dog went to live with Kristen (her friend) for a while." The problem was that she told him this without telling me. As fate would have it, I ran into them at a shopping center and the first thing the child asked was why Good Dog wanted to live with me and not him. He then wanted to know when he could visit Good Dog. I was clueless but had the presence of mind to let mom handle the awkward moment.

Dealing with the passing of a well-loved pet is usually a small child's first experience with death. It is a harsh reality because it is permanent and children can't fathom permanent. Children only know that their animal family member is no longer in their daily lives. How can we explain something as profound as death to a child when we as adults have a hard enough time dealing with it ourselves?

My friend was acting in a kind, protective manner to her son by saying that his dog was living with a friend, but it was momentary comfort because inevitably, the child would want to come and visit Good Dog. She was only postponing the time when she had to tell him the truth.

The two questions we have to ask ourselves about dealing with this situation are:

How should we tell our children about this topic? What will they understand?

The words "age appropriate" play a key role in talking to children about any subject. A child of 10 or older is worldlier when it comes to certain topics. They may have studied the ancient Egyptians and the elaborate tombs of the Pharaohs in a social studies class, thus having some concept of life and after-life. You can explain what has happened a little more easily to the ten and over group.

But a child under the age of seven doesn't really comprehend permanent loss. When a little girl told me that a relative was in heaven, she was only parroting what adults had told her. She followed her statement up a second later with the question, "What's heaven?"

There is no right or wrong way to talk to your child about this. Everything is subjective, and your personal beliefs play a major role in our explanations. If your family is deeply religious and strongly believes in an afterlife, then it is possible to gently explain the situation. Children are comforted by beliefs that play a major role in their family life. Be prepared that your child may also question whether you yourself, or other family members, are going to die. This fear becomes strong in children after the loss of a pet. Choose words carefully.

Whatever you tell your child; be gentle in your explanation. You are saddened over losing your family pet too and it does help the child to know this. Talk about the good times you both had with their pet. Don't be brutally honest. They do not need to know that their pet suffered in any way. Long explanations are unnecessary; answer only the questions that they ask and answer kindly. Be aware that children are great listeners to adult conversation, so be careful what you say to another adult when you think the children are too busy to hear you. They are listening.

Be respectful of even the youngest child's grieving process. Children need to mourn the loss of their pet. Do not "replace" their beloved pet immediately. Take time before you bring a new animal family member into your home.

Children understand so much more than we realize. Their innate curiosity and 'need to know' makes them question all of life. Your attitude, your kindness, and your strength will give your child coping skills that they will carry into adulthood.

© 2013 copyright Kristen Houghton

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