One of my earliest memories is of standing on my grandmother’s front porch as we greeted our family veterinarian, back in the days of house calls. The tone was somber, though I remember a laugh or two through tears. I remember the canine matriarch of the family, Holly, resting on a favorite blanket, as we all patted her to say our goodbyes. That Alaskan Malamute was a big part of my small world.
My daughter is now about the same age that I was then. Every morning, we descend the stairs to be greeted by our senior dog, Lyger. My girl screeches with delight and he wags his back end. The two of them only know how to greet each other with the utmost enthusiasm. My gut worries about the day when it’s time to say goodbye.
Clearly past the point where she won’t notice if he’s gone, but far too young to grasp the concept of death, I’ve been researching what we’ll say when the day comes. Here’s what I’ve gleaned:
Things to Avoid When a Pet Dies
Don’t just try to replace the pet or distract the child with another animal or toy.
Don’t tell your child that the dog “ran away” or “went to a farm.” This won’t resolve their sadness and will only cause resentment when they inevitably figure out what really happened.
Avoid using phrases like “put to sleep,” unless you want to cause your kid to freak out at the idea of bedtime or anesthesia.
When the time comes, it’s okay to cry in front of your child, but save the sobbing for a private moment, so that you don’t pile fear on top of their sadness.
How to Have a Conversation About Loss
Explain that your vet did everything they could to help, but that the pet was not going to feel better. Helping an animal die allows them to pass away peacefully without fear or pain.
If the pet died suddenly or as a result of an accident, explain the situation calmly and quietly, sharing only necessary information.
Let your child ask questions and answer them, but avoid giving more details or information than necessary. This will allow you to offer age appropriate information and comfort without bringing up new concerns.
Kids may not want to talk about the loss at first, feeling overwhelmed and sad. Encourage them to air their feelings or concerns when they’re ready. Be prepared for the topic to come back up for weeks or months following the loss. This is part of the grief process.
Ways to Help Them Cope
Read books about pet loss. Sometimes, just hearing that another child suffered a similar loss can put the young mind at ease. Sitting down quietly for a story can encourage your child to open up to you about her feelings and give her an opportunity to talk to you about good memories while she has your undivided attention. Your personal beliefs will play a big role in your approach or the story you choose, but I love the painted illustrations in Dog Heaven and Cat Heaven.
Create a Memorial or Tribute
A memorial service or burial ceremony for your pet may help older kids, but it may be too much when the wound feels too fresh. When your child is ready, get his or her involved in creating a fitting keepsake about your pet. Have her draw a picture or write a story about a happy memory with the pet. Create a picture frame or keepsake box with photos, trinkets, and special items. If your child wants to keep the pet’s collar and a favorite toy close by, it might help her feel like they're not gone entirely. Scrapbooking or reminiscing about good memories about happier times will help both of you.
Don’t Jump to Replace a Pet
Bringing a new pet into the home shortly after a loss is a sure way to build resentment and delayed bonding between the child and new pet. It’s okay to follow the child’s lead about when she might want a new pet. If it seems like it might be comforting, consider a stuffed animal or blanket that serves as a physical comfort.
While Lyger and I have had many years together, my daughter has had him by her side since her earliest days. He’s been with her for her entire life, so it’s only natural that the grieving process will take some time. When the time comes, patience and empathy will get us through it. In time, we’ll look back at the good memories we shared together.