Determine Your Child’s Current Level of Understanding about Death
Up to approximately age eight or nine depending on a child’s individual development and experiences, it is common for children to have difficulty in the following four areas when thinking about death.
• Understanding that death is permanent and that their pet will not return
• Understanding that death happens to every person and animal
• Understanding that the body no longer functions after a person or pet dies so there is no longer a need to eat, drink, breath, etc.
• Understanding that the death did not occur as a result of something the child thought, did, or did not do
Ask your children a question about what they think happens when a pet dies and base your explanation of death on their level of understanding. For example:
• What do you think will happen to Buddy when he dies?
• Tell me what you think it means for a pet to die.
Children do not conceptualize death in the same manner as adults. Young children do not think of death as final or permanent and can be very upset about the death of a pet one minute and laughing and carefree the next. This is normal behavior for a child. When children ask questions about death, answer only the question they are asking. For example, don’t give lengthy explanations about what death means or what happens to the body if all your child wants to know is, “how will Buddy eat when he is in the ground?” Answer this question with something like, “once Buddy dies he will not need to eat anymore.”, and then let your child determine where to go from there or what other questions to ask.
HONESTY – The Best Policy
Be honest with children about the death of a pet. Resist the temptation to say the pet is lost, ran away, or has found a new home. Although you might believe that these explanations will be easier for your child to cope with, they will prevent the death of a pet from being talked about and the grief your family feels from being expressed and shared as a family.
Be careful about the words or phrases you use. Saying that Buddy was “put to sleep” can be confusing to kids because they are put to sleep at night. If an illness has led to your pet’s death, and because children frequently become ill, clarify to children that not all illnesses or diseases end in death. Say something like, “some diseases are much worse than others and Buddy had a disease that was really bad and he could not get better.” If your pet was euthanized, you could add; “since he
could not get better, we asked his doctor to give him a shot that would help him to die peacefully and prevent him from feeling really sick for a long period of time. Often, the death of a pet is a child’s first experience with death and the manner in which the loss is dealt with as a family can have an impact on how children will cope with future losses.
Talking With Children About Euthanasia
• Remember to base your explanation on your child’s current level of understanding about death
• If you tell your child “Buddy’s veterinarian is going to help her die so she doesn’t have to suffer anymore,.”, be sure to clarify that this is something that is only done for animals.
• To the degree appropriate for your child’s age and individual development, include her/him in conversations and decisions about the euthanasia. Be certain to question your child frequently during these conversations to determine their level of understanding about your discussion and to see if they have any questions, comments, or concerns. If your child becomes frightened or upset about these conversations, do not force him or her to take part in them.
• If your children want to be present during the euthanasia, and if you agree to let them, be sure you or your veterinarian explains, step by step, what will happen and what can be expected. Do not force your child to be present or tell your child what happened during the euthanasia process if it upsets him.
• Decide prior to the procedure who will be holding the pet, any items you want to have close to the pet (such as a favorite toy), and let your children know it is alright to hold, touch, or stroke the pet and that it will be okay to cry if they feel like it.
Encourage Children to Express Their Thoughts and Feelings about What Has Happened
• Let children know it is normal for them to be angry, disappointed, or to cry about the death of a pet.
• Encourage conversations about what they miss or think they will miss
• Let them know that you too are sad and will miss your pet
• Ask your children if they have any special requests for their pet’s burial or memorial service, and follow through with those requests if possible
• Ask if there is anything your children would like to have buried or cremated with their pet.
• Ask if they would like to write a poem, letter, or say something special to their pet before it dies or during a memorial service
• Allow children the opportunity to say good-bye to their pet if they desire. If saying good-bye after the pet has died, be sure you let them know what to expect. For example, “Buddy won’t move or respond to you when you talk to him, but it is OK to go ahead and talk to him anyway.”
What To Expect From Your Child
• Children will frequently retell the events of the death or illness to their friends
• The games your child plays might include themes of death or be imitations of what was seen or heard during, shortly before, or after the death, such as pretending to be a veterinarian telling a family that their pet has died. Children might bury dolls or other toys and even have memorial services during their playtime. These are normal behaviors. Younger children have not learned how to verbalize their thoughts and feelings and play is how many children express themselves.
• Your child might tell others that he or she saw, heard, or felt the deceased pet. If this happens, simply ask your child what the experience was like rather than trying to convince your child the experience didn’t happen.
• Your child might begin to ask questions about death.
• Your child might experience changes in mood, behavior, or emotions
• Children often go from crying one minute to laughing the next, may become somewhat distant from family members and friends for a while, and sometimes appear not to have any sad feelings about the pet’s death. These also are normal reactions.
• Your child might think that something she said or did led to your pet’s death. If a week ago, your child was mad at the cat and thought, “I don’t like you anymore,” in a child’s way of thinking this might have caused the kitty to die. Be certain to explain to your children that nothing they did or said caused your pet to die.
If your child seems excessively upset for a prolonged period of time or if you are concerned about his or her reactions to the death of a pet, talk with a professional who is familiar with childhood grief. Each child will react differently to loss based on previous experiences, individual development, current circumstances, and the role the pet had in their lives.
Activities That Could Be Helpful
• Since children typically do not verbalize their thoughts and feelings as well as adults, you can encourage them to draw pictures or use forms of play to express what they are experiencing.
• Collect pictures of your pet and ask your child to make a scrapbook or make one with your child.
• If your child did not get the chance to say good-bye to your pet, ask them to write a good-bye letter, poem, or song for the pet and then have them read or sing it.
• Make a collage out of magazine pictures
• There are many books available to help children cope with the death of a pet (see list below). You can read one of these books to your child and then ask your child questions about what she thinks the characters in the book might be feeling or thinking. Often, children will project their own feelings or thoughts onto the characters.
Children’s Books include:
• When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers
• Remembering Pets by Gina Dalpra-Berman
• Liplap’s Wish by Jonathan London and Sylvia Long
• The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst
• When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown
• Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing With Loss by Michaelene Mundy
• Angel Cat by Michael Garland
• Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant
• Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant
Books for parents to better understand grieving children:
• Helping Children Cope With the Loss of a Loved One: A Guide for Grownups by William C. Kroen, Ph.D., LMHC
• The Grieving Child: A Parent’s Guide by Helen Fitzgerald
• 35 Ways to Help a Grieving Child by The Dougy Center
There are many other excellent books available on both the above topics as well as those written for adults who are grieving the death of a pet.