Birdy was a parakeet we'd had for all of six weeks -- a fourth-birthday present for our son Ethan. But when Birdy inexplicably fell off his perch and died, the loss was more traumatic than I ever would have imagined.
My husband and I struggled to explain Birdy's death to Ethan and his 6-year-old brother, Henry. I babbled about heaven and God and tried to help the boys accept and understand that Birdy would not "wake up," no matter how much Ethan begged him to. We all cried -- Ethan for hours. My husband got a shoe box, and we buried Birdy in the backyard, though Henry chose not to participate in the funeral. Two days later, unsure whether it was the right thing to do, we bought two new parakeets. Our story is not unique, of course. Pets die -- unexpectedly, of old age, or because of illness -- and their deaths can be wrenching experiences for both adults and children. "For kids, the loss of a pet is often their first experience with death," says Tamina Toray, Ph.D., an affiliate faculty member at the Argus Institute for Families and Veterinary Medicine at Colorado State University School of Veterinary Medicine, in Fort Collins. "Depending on their age and developmental stage, children view and cope with death in very different ways.""Mommy, Did I Make Him Die?"
Most children under 6 don't fully understand death. Little kids may know that being dead is different but don't grasp its irreversibility. Preschoolers may think that their pet will wake up, or they may believe that they did something to cause the death (and can, therefore, undo it). "You may need to tell your child many times that it's not his fault," Dr. Toray says. For instance, you might say, "Even if you were mad at Buddy, that's not why he died."
Younger children may also worry that others in their lives might die. Reassure your child that Mommy and Daddy are healthy, but the cat died because it was very sick. Help her feel secure by explaining that death isn't contagious. And tell your child that someone will always be there to take care of her in the unlikely event something were to happen to you. That may be what your child's really worried about deep down, Dr. Toray says.
School-age kids, on the other hand, comprehend the finality of death but are still figuring out the details. "It may seem morbid or weird, but children often become very curious about what happens to the body or the specifics of dying itself," says Susan Phillips Cohen, director of counseling at the Animal Medical Center, in New York City. Consider this a teachable moment: Your child may have a lot of questions, so ask the vet to explain in age-appropriate terms what happened to your pet's body that made it die.