As a parent, you’re faced with challenges you never dreamed you’d have to deal with. Some are funny, and others are well, downright uncomfortable. When my daughter was only two years old, I had to explain the loss of a pet, our bulldog.
The loss of a pet is extremely difficult. Explaining this loss to your kids is something you can’t prepare for. I was pregnant with my second daughter when the unexpected happened.
Yes, death is inevitable, but the death of our dog came as a shock because he was still a puppy. He would have turned three, two months after his passing. Instead, he passed away a month before my second daughter was born.
One thing I have learned through my experience as a mother (and from the parenting books I’ve read), is that children process experiences in different ways. Seems like a given, right? Death is an event where we must put our own feelings aside to allow for our children to feel comfortable expressing their emotions.
One of the best things we can do is provide support through open dialogue. When these hard discussions are avoided, emotions end up suppressed. Allowing a child to ask questions and express themselves gives them the chance to understand the situation.
I’m no expert in death, nor am I a child psychologist. The following are only some of the key elements I found valuable while maneuvering through the death of a pet.
Some people may think I was too honest by telling my daughter about the death of her beloved pet dog. I think the truth helped my daughter process the death of her pet.
She was able to ask questions on her own time. At her age, I knew that she didn’t fully understand what happened.
Try to gauge how your child is handling the loss of a pet. Everyone processes death differently, the key is staying open and aware of behavioral changes.
Growing up, I remember my friend telling me that she had a dog that went missing (possibly stolen or ran away). Late into our 20s, I don’t think she ever learned the truth, though she suspected that the dog was hit by a car.
This story came from an older sibling, yet was never confirmed by her parents.
I think the reason this stuck with me is that my friend never had closure. There was always wonder about what happened. She also didn’t get the opportunity to grieve.
I wholeheartedly respect those that want to protect their children. Death is a tricky topic to discuss and can be traumatic. What I want parents to consider in the aftermath of the experience if there isn’t an open dialogue.
As adults, we fear things in life and face anxiety over past experiences that are unresolved. For your child, the death of their pet may spark many questions. You, being their safe space can help them understand things happen and that fear, sadness, and grief are all acceptable feelings to have.
When we fail to acknowledge these feelings, as adults we may feel guilt as a reaction to not knowing how to cope.
We, humans, are strange. Think about it. We use quite a few euphemisms when referring to death. Passed, resting in peace, departed, and so on. Kids, however, are quite literal and because these terms do not say exactly what they mean, more confusion occurs.
My daughter recently overheard a friend of mine say that she had to put her dog “to sleep”. My daughter was confused by this reference and later asked me what my friend meant.
This resulted in a domino effect of questions – “will I go to sleep and not wake up?” I recommend being as clear as possible.
Because kids process events at their own pace, don’t be surprised when your child brings up the death of a pet over and over again. This is part of the process.
I was listening to an audiobook that discussed that recreating themselves is how they comprehend. This isn’t limited to the death of a pet but maybe an accident or an event where a loved one is injured and they are present to witness.
You may have heard that children act out more at home because it’s their safe space. I noticed that this is also true when expressing feelings. We would go days without mention of the loss of a pet, then suddenly an outburst would take place.
I’m talking full-blown meltdown, screaming that she missed her puppy. Children feel more comfortable at home, and with family members. Even if it seems that they regress, what they are searching for is reassurance. Personally, I felt that the outburst was a cry to know that the death of their pet was not a result of their actions.
It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to cry. It’s part of the grieving process, even for adults. Following the death of our pet, I cried in front of my kids. They weren’t sure how to react after they asked mommy what was wrong. Though I felt this was a bonding moment for my child to see that mommy and daddy are experiencing the death of a pet right alongside her.
There are a lot of resources to support you and your family during the death of a pet.
One of my favorite books that I read, and still read to my daughters is Dog Heaven,
We’re also big fans of Slumberkins. This company brings together family therapy and education to provide children with incredibly soft stuffed animals that are paired with books teaching kids how to cope with specific feelings, such as grief and loss. I love the affirmations that are included at the end of each story.
I had never heard the poem Rainbow Bridge (author unknown), until the death of our pet. One line from it reads:
“You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again.”
Life Goes On After the Loss of a Pet
I believe this is another reassurance children look for after the death of a pet. Death is often hard to describe, no matter the age.
It’s often uncomfortable, though I think through honesty, we as parents can lessen the confusion.
The death of a pet isn’t an event to brush off, but one to embrace and explain over time as children grow and comprehend the permanence.
Lacy Catao is a certified Holistic Nutritionist, former paralegal and Army veteran. Motherhood inspires Lacy to share her knowledge of nutrition and optimal wellness, while also providing lifestyle insight as a mother striving to parent with grace and patience. This California native planted her roots in northern Nevada with her husband in 2016. She contributes her love for country living to Idaho, which is where she spent most of her school-age years. Lacy is the mother of three girls and two stubborn Bulldogs.