Your child knows more than you think he or she does. As clinical psychologist Asa Brown wrote, “children are sponges, soaking up every verbal and nonverbal interaction.” A child can tell you are angry before you speak, happy before you smile, and sad before you reach out for a hug. Just as you are grieving the loss of a pet, your child may follow suit perhaps without ever understanding what is wrong. Helping your child process what is happening is crucial to his or her good mental health. The purpose of this blog post is to help you as a parent or guardian know what to do when your child starts asking the tough questions and how to help your family move forward from loss.
“What is death?”
Death is complicated, even for adults. It can be hard to answer your child when she asks why the cat had to die or where the dog went after he died when you aren’t certain yourself. According to Parents magazine and Neptune Society (who provide cremations and have excellent resources for families), the most important thing you can do for your child is to be honest. Saying the dog is just sleeping may cause the child to feel afraid to go to sleep. Children may ask if they will die too, or if you will die. Do your best to assure your child that most people live long lives, and you will do your best to protect your child so they can live a long happy life, too. It is important to explain to your child in words they will understand what is happening. Simply saying “the dog died” isn’t going to mean anything to your child if they have no concept of what death is. Metaphorical descriptions are useful here; the example Parents gives is explaining that living things are like toys and when our batteries give out, they cannot be replaced. If your pet had a lengthy illness, it may be helpful to express to your child that whatever pain or suffering the pet was going through is over now. For older children, it may be helpful to use the story of The Fall of Freddie the Leaf (or others similarly themed children’s and young adult books). In short summary, it is the story of Freddie, a leaf, who comes to understand the cycle of life: others he has loved have fallen off the tree before him, and he will fall too when autumn comes . Death is as natural as the leaves falling in the autumn.
“Where do they go when they die?”
How can we answer our child truthfully when we aren’t sure ourselves? It may be helpful to address this question according to your family’s religious beliefs. Parents magazine offers an alternative: letting your child decide for himself or herself (“Say something like, ‘No one knows for sure. Some people think you go to heaven when you die, while others believe people come back on earth as different creatures. What do you think?’”). Use your own judgment to come to the best answer for your family.
Sharing Grief with Your Child
Traditionally in the U.S., children were not encouraged to take part in grief, often absent from viewings, wakes, and funerals. The New York Times recommends against the “old school” way of not allowing your children to share in grief. In their article, they shared a powerful story of a widowed father who read children’s books about death to his kids, cried in front of them, and cried with them. Seeing a parent cry will not scare or worry your child as long as you are honest about what you are feeling with your child. Children may not know how or be able to express themselves in a way we can understand. It may be helpful to use a feelings chart (the good people at Sesame Street have excellent worksheets for expressing emotions). Your child can point to a happy face or a frowning face if they don’t have the words to use yet. Your child may not want to talk right away, either. Give your child the space he or she needs, but offer to be there for him when he is ready to talk. It may be helpful to give your child an outlet (pounding play dough, an instrument to make noise, time to run around outside). Children may also not be grieving in the same way you are, and that is fine too! Children live in the moment which may help mitigate feelings of grief, so they may return to happy faster than you will. No matter what your child is feeling, it is important to recognize and validate those feelings.
Remind Your Child of Happy Memories
Grief can be so deeply felt it may be helpful to help remind your child (and yourself) of all the good times you had with your pet. A small memorial ceremony, a scrapbook, a photo album could help capture happier moments from your pet’s life. A stuffed animal that looks like your pet may be a good substitute until your family is ready to get another pet. It allows your child to have someplace to give his or her love while not feeling like the pet has been replaced by a new one right away.
Instilling Feelings of Hope for the Future
It is important to help your child understand that there will be a time when there are more good days than bad days. Writing out things they would like to do this week, next week, or next year will help them see that we can move on from this and you’re there to help them. Planning for a future vacation, creating new routines or returning to old ones are all ways to help your child return to “normal”.
There are many ways you can help your child after the loss of your loved one. Do not avoid grief; it is helpful for your child to be allowed to feel what he feels. Be honest with your child as much as you deem appropriate. Below, we have provided the sources we used in this post. Please use them as you see fit.
Advice is one thing, but please remember: you know your child best. If you start to become concerned for your child, seek help.