Part 1 in our 3 Part Series on Dealing with Grief
Guest Writer: Amelia Harvey, BSc(Psych)Hons
Losing a pet is a difficult time in any family and explaining the reality of death to your child can be a daunting task. Pets are members of the family and their passing can be just as painful as losing a human loved one.
The loss of a pet is an important time to model healthy ways to grieve and cope with loss, especially as it’s the first loss that many children will experience.
Here are some steps to guide your child through the loss of a pet:
- Clearly explain what has happened.
Choose a familiar, safe and distraction-free environment to explain to them that your pet has passed away. The level of detail you go into will depend on their age and maturity level – what’s important is that you’re 100% clear with them. If your pet needs to be euthanized, you may like to give your child an opportunity to say goodbye or comfort the pet during the process.
Avoid lying or trying to soften your pet’s passing by saying they ‘ran away’ or ‘went to live on a farm’ as this can trigger fears of abandonment in your child. Even saying they were ‘put to sleep by the vet’ can send mixed messages to your child and can trigger a fear of medical settings.
If your pet has been unwell and was euthanized, explain that this was done to end your pet’s suffering.
- Encourage them to share and ask questions.
Your child will likely have questions about what happens after death – you can share your beliefs or simply say ‘I don’t know’ and ask them what they think. Help your child identify any emotions they’re feeling by giving them the space to describe how they feel.
- Validate their emotions.
If your child becomes upset, validate their emotions by saying ‘I know, it’s very sad isn’t it’ or ‘I feel sad too, we will miss Rex a lot’. Express how you’re feeling and don’t be afraid to show emotions or cry with your child. Let them cry it out and give them hugs and support and a safe place to feel sad. Your child might become angry, or confused and this is OK too, stay calm and answer their questions, all the while validating how they’re feeling – ‘It’s OK to feel angry, it was an accident and we’re all very sad’.
- Have a memorial ceremony
Choose a place your pet loved in your garden to bury them or a favourite park or beach to sprinkle their ashes. Alternatively, you could choose to bury them at a pet cemetery. Your child might like to visit this place to talk to their pet, especially if the pet was a source of comfort for them.
An informal ceremony where everyone shares one thing they loved about the pet is a nice way to share the experience – remember to validate any emotions that your child experiences during this process.
- Keep the memory of your pet alive
Put photos of your pet around your home and give your child any of your pet’s belongings they would like to keep or pictures for their room. You might like to create a photo album of your pet as a way to record all the happy memories that you shared. If there are leftover toys, bedding, and food, you can take your child to the local animal shelter and donate these items together so that they can bring joy to another animal.
You and your child will likely always feel sadness over the loss of your pet but over time the sadness will diminish and happy memories will become a source of joy.
Amelia Harvey combines her background in psychology and wellness coaching with intuition and energetic techniques giving her clients the practical, emotional, and spiritual tools they need to find inner peace and create a life of purpose, abundance, and peace.
You can read more about her background and qualifications here.
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Toray, T. (2004). The human-animal bond and loss: Providing support for grieving clients. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 26(3), 244-259.