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."
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.
There's no best way for kids to mourn their pets, but children are more likely to express their grief through their behavior than with words. Your preschooler may pretend to still play with her lost pet, for instance. Your 6-year-old who hasn't wet the bed in years may suddenly have accidents. Your preteen may slack off on schoolwork. "These changes are normal and often temporary," Dr. Cohen says. "But if your child seems overwhelmed by grief or unable to function in her normal routines, consider getting help from a child therapist or grief counselor." Your child's school or doctor may be able to recommend a professional.
It's important to let your child grieve in his own way, in his own time. "Grief is a process, not an event," Dr. Toray says. "Your child may experience a wide range of emotions, from sadness to anger to fear." Grief can also ebb and flow. Your child may feel fine one day and be in tears the next. Here are ways you can help him cope.
Be a role model. If you're upset too, it's okay to show it. Let your kids see you crying, sad, angry, and ultimately, coping, Dr. Cohen suggests. "The loss of a pet can be an opportunity to teach your child how to handle pain and difficulty." Talk about how much you miss the pet, and encourage your child to share favorite memories.
Nurture grieving. As upsetting as it may be to see your child cry, let him. Saying something like "Be a big boy" puts unfair restrictions on your child for expressing his sadness. If he doesn't feel like crying, let him know that's okay too.
Choose the right words. Even if you think your child's too young to understand death, be honest and straightforward whenever you talk about what happened to your pet. Trying to protect her by using euphemisms for death -- like "Sparky went to sleep" or "God needed Fifi" -- may actually confuse and frighten your child more. She may connect things she does, such as going to sleep, with the fate of your pet. Saying that your pet "went away" or is "gone" may give her the impression that the animal will return. Inaccurate explanations like "Spot went to live on a farm," can create anxiety and mistrust.
It's better to say that your pet will never move, breathe, or eat again, that his body stopped working, that he won't be with the family anymore, or, simply, that he's dead. If your dog gets euthanized, instead of saying he was "put to sleep," tell your child, "The vet helped Ginger die."
Say goodbye. Planning a ritual -- whether a backyard funeral or the planting of a tree as a memorial -- can be especially helpful in the healing process. The ceremony acknowledges the loss while also honoring the special relationship your child had with her pet.
But follow your child's lead. Henry, for example, wasn't comfortable attending Birdy's burial, and I didn't push him. Your child may be more open to drawing pictures, painting, or writing a letter to express his love and grief for the pet. "Let him pick a picture of your pet to put in a frame, select the burial place, or decorate a grave marker. Being able to contribute helps kids through their mourning," Dr. Cohen says.
Don't rush it. Inevitably, thoughts may turn to getting a new pet. There are no hard-and-fast rules as to what is an acceptable time frame. Everyone in the family may feel ready at different times, and it's best to wait until no one is opposed. "Talk to your kids about the reason for wanting a new pet," Dr. Toray advises. "If it's to take the place of the one who died, explain that no animal can really do that." And by adopting or buying a new pet too quickly, you may send the message that all things can be replaced.
In retrospect, I wish we had waited a little longer before getting our new birds. Ethan seemed unsure of how to treat them while he was still mourning Birdy. I also wish I had been more prepared for Birdy's death. But if you follow your heart, and give everyone the time and encouragement to grieve, healing will eventually happen.