Q: We had to put our 11 yr old dog to sleep a month ago. My son is only 5 so he has known her his whole life. He has been very sad and asks about her daily. I told him she's in heaven now and we talk about her so I don't try to hide anything. Is there anything else I can do for him? It breaks my heart seeing him so sad. Is there a good book out there that I could read to him? something?
A: Pet loss is often a child’s first exposure to death. It is a sad and unfortunate teachable moment for families. This type of loss is an opportunity for parents to:
- communicate about death and the life cycle
- show their children that they are an open resource and can be a great support during difficult times
- show their children that they can tolerate intense and difficult emotions
- model to children how to cope with grief and loss
As children get older their capacity to understand death gets more complex. Regardless of a child’s age, they should always be told the truth about the health and/or death of a pet. This must be done in an age appropriate manner that is sensitive to both the child’s development and temperament. Regardless of age, it is crucial that children are given honest information about their pet’s fate. We know that the most severe symptoms of distress show up in children who are not informed about what is happening or has happened to their pets.
A few things you can do to help your child cope with the loss of a pet are:
Use the accurate words like die and death. Using the accurate words let’s your child know that you are comfortable discussing the issue and this more accurately reflects the truth of what has happened. Statements like “he was put to sleep” or “we lost him” only confuse and scare children. If a young child believes sleep is related to death they are more likely to have sleep issues.
Talk about the life cycle. It is important to teach children about the life cycle long before the death of a loved one. Pointing out leaves, spiders, or flowers that have died introduces the concept early on.
Let your child see you cry. Children learn how to grieve by watching our examples. It is important that they get the message that feelings of grief and sadness are normal. Expressing those feelings help us move through them and honors the relationship we shared with the animal.
Read books to help them understand. Reading is particularly great for younger children, who integrate through repetition. I especially like I’ll Always Love You Forever By Hans Wilhelm and Jasper’s Day By Marjorie Blain Parker. Books like these allow children to learn about how other have dealt with loss and normalizes their feelings.
Have a funeral or memorial. A funeral is an important grief ritual that allows the whole family to acknowledge the significance of the relationship and the loss they are experiencing together.
Be prepared for the child to be concerned about other pets or people dying. The loss of a loved pet can bring up anxieties around loss for many children. Be prepared to answer questions about what would happen if you were to die or questions about the eventual death of other family members.