Helping Your Kids Cope with Losing a Pet
Knowing What’s Coming
No adult wants to admit their beloved pet might be nearing the end of its life, and for kids, the thought of losing their furry friend can be confusing and frightening. Gentle Pet Crossing sees many families handling grief, and owners Jackie and Juanique experienced this firsthand when they lost two of their cats in quick succession and had to share the situation with their young daughter, Kai. Helping kids grieve their pet might seem daunting, but with commitment and the right attitude, parents can be the best support possible.
Calm Before the Storm
Usually a dog or cat will show signs of age and give their owner some time to get used to the idea of living without their pet. For the children in a family, however, they might not be able to see the signs or understand the magnitude of what’s about to happen. Part of helping kids grieve is trying to brace them for the end, and that’s what Jackie and Juanique did when they realized their aging cats were going to pass away in the near future. Their daughter is just four years old, and they decided to make Kai aware that Oscar and Rama, who were already elderly cats, might not always be with her in the future.
“We never hid that from her. We were taking them to the doctor, [saying] ‘Someday they may go to Kitty Heaven.’ We would always just talk about it,” Jackie says.
Sometimes, a dog or cat can die unexpectedly, and owners will have to deal with the loss coupled with added shock. For most families, though, they’ll be gifted with the opportunity to tell their children a little more about death. Some children will be too young to even understand what death is, but others will and they can understand what it will be like not to have their pet around anymore, even if it makes them sad.
No matter how young your child is or how great their understanding of death, the key ingredient in this recipe should be communication. Talk to your child, see how much they can understand, and go from there. You know your child better than anyone, and you will be able to tell how much more you need to fill them in on as you speak about losing a family pet.
When the Moment Comes
Some parents with small children do not want to explain about death when their pets go, and they’ll make up a story about their pets getting lost and not finding their way back. Jackie and Juanique had seen this happen with other parents and felt it was important to go in another direction and be transparent with Kai when their cat Oscar’s condition grew worse and they made the decision to end his suffering.
“We had to put him down, because he was just really bad that morning. I kind of just set [Kai] aside and sat with her, and said, ‘You know, I think it’s time. He’s really sick. Maybe it’s time for him to go to Heaven with his other friends.’ And then she just lost it and bawled. She knew what I was talking about. But I think she needed to do that to have closure,” says Jackie.
Accentuate the Positive
Emphasizing what made the pet so special to your child will help your kid grieve in a more recovery-focused way to cope with losing a pet. Knowing that they were vital in the happiness of their pet should be a comfort to your child.
For example, remind your child of how happy their pet seemed playing with them. Or if there was a special vacation or holiday involving the pet, remind them of how great a life they have given the pet right to the end.
Leaving a Mark
If your family is given enough time to prepare for your pet’s death, then you also have an opportunity to save a tangible reminder of that pet. If you think your family will enjoy having a physical symbol of their pet’s time with you, then getting the pet’s paws set in stone might be a good thing to do before your pet is gone.
“We did the pawprint with the picture of her and Oscar in the frame. It’s still on the mantel. We always ask, ‘Are you ready to give that up?’ She’s always, like, ‘No, I’m not ready.’ We’ll just wait for her to let us know when she wants to put it away,” Jackie says.
Giving your child a little gift after they have lost their pet will not not only give them a little boost of fun after a hard experience, but it can also tie them to their love of their pet in a positive way. You can give your kid a little stuffed animal that looks like their pet, or a charm bracelet with a little figure of their pet, or a locket with their pet’s picture inside.
This will help your child hold onto the positive memories about their pet rather than dwelling on the negative ones. An early grief process with sadness is inevitable, and of course there will be an occasional moment of tearful remembrance through the years. But if you can give your child a happy reminder of your pet early on, they will be better equipped to utilize their happy memories more frequently than their sad ones.
After your pet has passed on, then your family will have to decide how to respect your animal’s remains and what kind of memorial will be best for your children. At Gentle Pet Crossing, we can provide a space for both of those things, or we can come to your home and provide certain kinds of help with letting your pet go painlessly.
The most important part of this process for your children will be getting an experience that fits their emotional needs. Having a memorial service with family and friends who liked the pet is usually very helpful for a child, but communicate with your child to get a good idea of what they want. Your child will come through the experience totally fine if you are there to listen and help.