Deep and heartfelt Harmony and gratitude to those who allowed me to share their personal stories in this post.
Years ago I was teaching music in my home to young kids, most of them grade school age. My animals, of course, helped, particularly my dog Teddy. There were many times when he would sense a student was not feeling the best. Teddy would go to the child, physically touch the child and work his Teddy magic, helping the student to feel better. Teddy would then look at me and say “HA! They came to see ME today, not you!”.
Even though I considered Teddy my perpetual puppy, no one lives forever and when Teddy was 17 years old, I had to help him transition.
I was devastated by this. Yet as shattered as I felt, I knew I needed to call the parents of my students and tell them what had happened so they could prepare their children.
After all, it was true what Teddy had said: there were times when the students came to see him, not me.
The students’ first lesson without Teddy was somber with many tears being shed. We talked about how they remembered him, what he meant to them. Most, if not all the children, brought me pictures or cards they had created. I still have those cards and pictures – they mean the world to me.
Children Experience Grief Differently Than Adults
Grief is grief, and when a child experiences the death of a beloved animal pal, their grief is real. It is not a practice or a dry run for how to practice grieving for a human. Since animals are often valued family members, not only may this be the first time the child has experienced death, but the death of a beloved family member. Their grief is authentic, heartfelt and genuine.
Children live in the moment and are usually more open and honest about what they are feeling than adults. They tend not to rationalize their grief, nor have they lived long enough to unconsciously fall into the unspoken proscribed protocol our society has for grief and the death of an animal: it’s OK to grieve *this* much for your pet, but then get over it and get on with your life. While children experience grief differently than adults, and perhaps even for a shorter time than adults, their grief is no less intense.
Talking With Your Child About the Death of Their Pet
The way a parent handles talking with their child about the death of their pet can influence the child for life, shaping how as adults they look at death, grief and caring for themselves when they are grieving. Knowing your child is key because they all learn differently, receive and experience life differently.
One adult remembers how her mother took her beloved dog to the vet to ‘put him to sleep’ without first telling her. She was 12 at the time and remembers being devastated, wishing she had been forewarned of this.
Kids, especially younger kids, may be confused about what is happening to their animal pal. It’s important to talk honestly with the children about what is happening. Speak to the child on their level of understanding – younger kids may be satisfied with “Fluffy/Rover is in Heaven”, while older kids may want and need more details. Kids need to feel they are a part of this important story, not just a bystander.
A parent shared how she and her husband make sure their kids have a chance to say good-bye to the family animal pal, if at all possible. Their 16 year old son recently accompanied them to the vet’s office when it was necessary to help their beloved cat transition. The young man took his turn saying goodbye, sobbing in the silent way only teen young men can. His mom says it’s tricky to comfort a teen boy, so she and her husband let him have his space, are available to him when he wants to talk and are honest with him about their own grief.
One mother shared how in her Facebook feed, her 9 year old daughter saw a photo of a senior dog needing foster care. Seeing this picture was the catalyst for talking about their senior dog who transitioned years ago. Even though the daughter was quite young when that happened, she did have some good memories. The conversation then gave rise to talking about the Rainbow Bridge.
Another mother shared how she and her husband made the final trip to the vet with their senior dog, leaving their 9, 7 and 5 year old children at home with their grandmother. When the parents returned home, the mom was trying not to cry, but putting on a brave and strong face to tell the kids. Her 5 year old became very quiet and began to stare her down. He finally said he was ok, but he wanted Mommy to hurry and and tell his siblings their dog was with God now. He continued “Mommy, you don’t have to worry she is going to Heaven where it’s really pretty and she can have all her favorite treats. God does that to take care of them until we go and get them”.
One mom shared how she talks to her young son about Spirit and Heaven so he has a pretty good understanding of that. She said it’s still difficult to manage the physical loss so she has given him his own photographs of the animals which helps him feel connected. Her young son watches his calendar for birth and death days so they can celebrate and remember their angel animals. The urns that contain the ashes of their animal family members are very helpful. He understands the urns don’t contain the deceased family animal members (per se), but give him a physical reminder of them.
Talking with a child about the loss of a beloved animal pal and their grief differs from family to family, from child to child, and even from child to child within the same family. It’s important to know your child and what they need to navigate a trauma.
Suggestions For Talking With You Child About the Death of Their Pet
- Be patient when talking with your child; they may need to return to the subject over and over again
- Be open and honest
- If your child wants to do so, listen as they tell you what dying means to them
- Give your child permission to work through their grief and support them as they do so
- Encourage your child to speak freely about what they are experiencing and feeling
- Tell their teacher, coach and any other important adult person in your child’s life about the death of the family pet and how your child is experiencing that
- Talk openly about death, dying and grief – it’s a natural cycle of life
The death of a pet is not easy to assimilate, especially in a society where feelings surrounding animal pals can be ambiguous and undervalued. If you need help in handling your own grief before you talk with your children, Talk2theAnimals offers individual Pet Grief Sessions, which support you in assimilating your feelings and remembering your animal companion in your own unique way. Click the logo to book your session.