Dealing with any type of loss is extremely difficult, especially when it comes to a member of our immediate family. A child’s pet is often one of their very first best friends and having this relationship end can be heartbreaking for them and the rest of our family.
While caring for an animal and eventually losing them for whatever the reason is an important life lesson for kids, it’s also a teaching moment that needs to be shared, experienced and explored.
Obviously there are age considerations that come along with dealing with this type of a tragedy since a five-year-old will have more difficulty wrapping their brain around the concept of death compared to a teenager. But parents should also choose their words carefully when it comes to breaking the news and explaining this type of a permanent event to their children.
What You Shouldn’t Say
Depending upon your own values, religious and spiritual beliefs, some statements are better interpreted compared to others. For example, for those with a strong faith that has been instilled in their children, telling them their animal went to heaven paints a more glorious and less painful picture and is easier for them to grasp. But don’t say something like “God took them away to heaven,” as this could cause some kids to resent a higher power and seriously question their core belief system that you’ve worked so carefully to instill in them.
Don’t Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
In a similar light, using a phrase like “putting them to sleep,” could also cause confusion for some youngsters who don’t understand the concept of euthanasia. For smaller children, they may believe their beloved best friend will miraculously “wake up” one day and will be unable to swallow what it means when a pet needs to be put out of their misery.
There’s also the “Rainbow Bridge,” a beautiful and powerful message that can help some kids (and adults) deal with their pet’s passing that doesn’t necessarily encompass a religious belief. Poetically spoken and wonderfully described, it offers a journey that a pet takes after their life here on earth has ended and they cross a rainbow bridge to a place where they are free from pain, age limitations and are able to run happy and free until we can join them there.
Sharing and Caring
As with the passing of any one of our beloved family members, be sure to communicate this loss with everyone involved, including your veterinarian, close friends and immediate family. While you and your children can go through this difficult loss together, sometimes something unexpected could trigger a repeat of this painful grief, like a friendly reminder about a check-up from the vet. Friends or family could show up and ask about your pet and cause difficulties, misdirected anger and problems where they shouldn’t exist if these people were left uninformed.
Don’t Gauge Grief
The grieving process can be a fickle foe, and sometimes parents need to understand that kids may react very differently to this type of a loss. For example, on a personal note, when we lost our family pet when our child was in their early teens, we expected the worst. Since these two were quite close, we thought our adolescent would take this tragic news really hard and we were dreading the tears that would transcend after delivering this devastating news to our daughter.
Instead, we were really surprised about how well she took the reality of losing her little snuggle-buddy and someone she used to cry with whenever she was upset. On the contrary our teen replied, “She (our dog) never really liked it when I cried so I want to honor her memory and not weep over her passing.”
I must admit, I was truly floored by this type of a grown-up reaction and her calm demeanor given this heart-wrenching news. But it brings up an important point. Whether your child needs to be comforted or to be left alone, let them grieve on their own terms. But at the same time, always be for them wherever and whenever possible to help them through this difficult time.
Amber Kingsley is a freelance writer whom has donated countless hours supporting her local shelters. With writing, she has spent most of her research on animals with regards to food, health and training.