How Should We Help Kids Cope With Pet Loss?

Girl holding cat
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Q. A friend told me she and her 11-year-old daughter were both with their cat when she was put down. I bit my tongue hard, but I think a child has no business seeing that. Do you agree?

A. The death of a pet offers parents a chance to show children that death is part of life and that it’s OK to grieve. How these lessons are best offered varies widely based on a child’s age and a family’s comfort level with the issues surrounding loss, and the options for best handling these matters are as unique as each child. I don’t necessarily disagree with the decision to allow an older child to attend a pet’s euthanasia, although I certainly wouldn’t recommend the experience universally.

Because dying can be upsetting to watch, it’s generally recommended that a child not be in attendance. Parents should be open to allowing the child time with the body afterward, however, if the youngster expresses an interest in saying goodbye and is prepared for the experience with an explanation of what he or she will see.

Experts advise using activities to help children recognize and work through their emotions, such as having a child draw or paste a picture of the pet, or finish this sentence: "Thinking about (my pet's name) dying makes me feel ... ." Such exercises allow parents, grandparents, teachers and other important adults in the lives of children to open avenues for discussion, as well as to help set the tone for appropriate ways of grieving. A memorial service can also help, with the entire family sharing stories about the pet.

It's most important to be truthful and factual in explaining death to children, and to let the child know it's OK to ask about anything, even something as potentially disturbing to parents as the final disposition of the body. Offer age-appropriate answers, but don’t shut off a child’s questioning; the answers a child may make up for himself might be far worse than the truth.

Some other suggestions for parents helping children deal with the death of a pet:

Don't sugarcoat the facts. Parents need to remember not to use euphemisms. Telling a child a pet was "put to sleep" may leave the child afraid to fall asleep himself.

Use more than words. Children are not as focused on words as we are. They may want to play the death scene over and over, which may be disturbing to adults, but it's their way of working through it. Children also can express their feelings through painting, drawing, cutting and pasting.

Share your own grief, but don't burden your child. It's good for a child to see your feelings and to know sadness is acceptable, but it's too much to ask your child to be your support at such times. Turn to other adults for this need.

Don't rush your child. Grief can be a long process. Make sure your child’s teachers are aware of the situation so they can help as well.

When handled appropriately, the death of a pet can leave children well-prepared for the losses we all face in our lives. A pet's death, in other words, can be a final gift of love and learning if handled with respect and wisdom by the adults in the child’s life.

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