Q My daughters, ages 4 and 7, have two pets who are both very old: a cat named Ping Pong and a dog named Bubba. The dog has been diagnosed with cancer and given a prognosis of three months or less to live. These pets are like members of the family. I have no idea how to help the girls deal with the death of a pet. What advice do you have for me?
A. Any readers who have pets will understand the idea of a pet being a family member and how sad one can become at even the thought of a pet’s death. Pets sleep with many of us. They provide comfort and enjoyment. They let us know we are loved when others reject us. We spend a lot of time and money caring for our pets.
I commend you for wanting to have a plan in mind when one of your pets dies, so you will be more prepared to handle the situation, especially with your girls. Here are some suggestions for helping your children deal with a pet that is sick or has passed on:
- Help your children identify their feelings and talk about these feelings. Kids will likely experience sadness, of course. They may also experience anger, denial, fear, guilt and any number of other feelings. You can be a role model by sharing your feelings too.
- Provide support and affection. Use a soothing, comfortable voice.
- Whenever possible, help your child say goodbye to the pet while it is still alive.
- Be honest in explaining death. Young children often see death as temporary and even reversible. They may ask, “What if I am a really good boy or girl, will the pet come back?” From six to eight years of age, children start to develop a somewhat better idea of death, however, it’s often not until they are around nine that they understand that death is permanent. You can explain to young children that the pet won’t wake up again. Explain the death as you would the death of a person. You might explain that they have gone to a better place where there is no pain or sickness.
- If you are religious, avoid saying God took your pet. The child might worry who else God will decide to take.
- Inform your children’s teachers about the death of your pet so they will better understand any feelings of sadness or loss that your daughters may experience at school.
- Children will need time to remember the pet and to do things like write poems or stories about it, make a scrapbook, help plan a memorial service or participate in the burial with your help. You might want to have flowers or candles to add to the ceremony and mark it as special.
- If your child doesn’t want to talk, wait until she is ready. Everyone deals with death in an individual way.
Realize that helping your child deal with the death of a pet may help her learn how to cope with other losses that come throughout life too.
National Alliance for Children’s Grief (NAGC) www.childrengrieve.org
“The Goodbye Book” by Todd Parr
“When a Pet Dies” by Fred Rogers
“Dog Heaven” by Cynthia Rylant
“Sammy in the Sky” by Barbara Walsh
Betty Richardson, PhD, RN, CS, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.