Dogs teach us so much about life…and part of that life includes death. A pet’s death is very difficult on the entire family but it can be especially troublesome for children. Today we have a special guest post on how to turn losing your pet into a learning experience for your child.
It’s never a good time to lose a pet. We grow attached to them, they end up in family photos and for many of us they become another member of the family, especially for children. For many children, the loss of a pet can be the first experience with death and that can be a difficult thing for a parent to try to explain. According to the Argus Institute at Colorado State University, children “express grief differently than adults due to shortened attention spans and varying intellectual levels of understanding death and loss.”
As such, this provides an opportunity for a valuable teaching experience as far as helping your child learn the inevitable skill of coping with loss. According to Julia Simens, a counselor with 20 years of experience, “Attachment is the cornerstone of parenting. Most parents seem to get this when they are dealing with their own young child but this is even more important to them when their child has become attached to a pet. This is a great way for empathy and caring to become part of their child’s experiences.”
These following tips are an amalgamation of a variety of advice provided by mental health professionals and veterinarians, but are by no means hard and fast medical advice. Essentially, this is provided as a loose guideline to help you frame an inevitable discussion if you are a pet owner with children, and hopefully turn it into an experience that will help children cope with loss as they grow.
Before we get into what you should do in this situation, let’s take a look at what you should NOT do.
What not to do:
- Sugarcoat things or lie. No one benefits from this approach, plus your children can get false hope that they will see their pet again. Simply put, don’t lie. Bereavement experts tend to agree that lying, especially to young children, can lead to trust issues and resentment as the child grows.
- Assume you know how they’re feeling. Children’s emotions in these situations can be very complex.
- Ask your child how they are feeling or force them to talk. “Like adults, fearful of being judged, they will automatically say, “I’m Fine,” even though they are not.” (The Grief Institute)
- Confuse them with euphemisms. Telling a child a pet has been “put to sleep”, though a common term with adults, can confuse a child with their understanding of sleep.
- Place blame. If someone or something was responsible for your pet’s death, it will not help the child to cope with the situation by merely redirecting their emotions to anger.
- Provide too many details. Children typically have a very straightforward understanding of the outside world, don’t confuse them by telling them more than they need to know.
- Try to replace the pet too quickly. Sid Korpi, animal chaplain and author of Good Grief: Finding Peace After Pet Loss, “Tell them that they will never replace this last pet in their hearts, and that it’s just fine to always love and remember him or her; but he or she would want them to share their love and give a good home to another animal that needs them—again, when the time is right.”
What to do:
- Ask specific questions (not “How are you feeling?”). If you take the time to understand your child’s attachment to the pet and their struggle with loss, you can best frame the discussion as to how you help them. The Grief Recovery Institute advises, “Listen with your heart, not your head. Allow all emotions to be expressed, without judgment, criticism, or analysis.” Take this approach as opposed to dictating the child’s feelings by telling them not to be scared or sad, those feelings are perfectly normal.
- Be honest. It can be easier for the adult to try to make the situation seem less permanent, but the child needs to know what dying means and that their pet will not be coming back.
- Reassure the child that they had nothing to do with any of their behaviors or actions.
- Share your feelings. Even as adults it can be difficult to accept the loss of a pet, sharing your feelings with your child can encourage them to do the same and help them accept the situation more quickly. The Argus Institute points out this is an excellent opportunity to teach by example: “This is also an opportunity for adults to model appropriate expression of feelings. This not only helps the child identify what they are feeling themselves, but creates a sense of safety about experiencing emotions and expressing them appropriately.”
- Have an event or ritual that allows the child to build resilience and supports the previous points of sharing your feelings. Dr. Russell Hyken of http://www.teenparentingexpert.com suggests “Consider cremating and burying your pet on your property next to a favorite tree or have a ceremony where you plant a tree in memory. This is a great way to discuss the importance of your pet and how he impacted your life.” According to Simens, “As a parent, you cannot help your child learn to be resilient unless you let them take responsibility of their own growth process. Learning about grief is vital for your children. It is one way to make sure they understand the importance of family connections.”
- Tell the other adults in your child’s life. If your child will be heading to school or to stay with a friend, the adults in those situations should be aware that your child recently suffered a loss. This will give them a better idea of how to manage if your child starts behaving differently.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Regardless of the steps you take, some children will deal with their pet’s death better than others. If your child seems to have continued struggles coming to terms, there is nothing wrong with seeking out a counselor versed in these types of scenarios.
Other useful links and sources:
This article is provided by a regular contributor for the blog at Silver Lining Herbs, an all natural dog and horse supplement manufacturer, which can be found online at http://www.silverliningherbs.com. Silver Lining Herbs reached out to several experts on grief management and counseling to contribute to this article.