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The loss of a pet can have a dramatic effect on children. Guiding a child through a loss can be difficult and it is often hard to determine the appropriate way to do so. For many children, the loss of an animal is the first death they experience and the experience can affect how children view death for the remainder of their lives.
It is important to explain the death of the pet in a way that gives a realistic explanation of death. Being open and honest with the child can help shape their understanding of death, this includes being open about when the death has occurred and explaining what death looks like.
It is better to use concrete terms as opposed to “soft” words. Telling a child that an animal was “put to sleep” or “put down” can create confusion about what it means to sleep or rest. It is preferable to explain euthanasia in more concrete terms, explaining it as something veterinarians do to help animals die peacefully. For younger children it may be easier to explain it as a way to help animals leave their bodies.
Children may have many questions about death and euthanasia, it is important to answer these questions to help a child come to terms with the death. Unanswered questions may make the grieving process more difficult for a child be as open as possible with your child to help them through the process.
A child should be involved in the death of an animal in a manner they are comfortable with. When preparing for the death of an animal, explaining what death looks like, through euthanasia or natural death, will allow the child to determine how they want to be involved. Understanding that a pet is going to die also allows a child to prepare how they would like to say goodbye.
Children may have any number of responses to the death of their pet, it is important to listen and allow the child to grieve in their own way. Grief looks different for each person and a child cannot be told how to grieve, they need someone to listen and allow their natural process while ensuring them that their feelings are normal and okay.
Children may benefit from an active form of grieving that allows them to memorialize their pet. Often a scrap of fur or a paw print will be offered, this can serve as a memorial for the child. Children may also find comfort in making a scrapbook, drawing a picture, or writing a letter to the pet. Making time to talk about the pet and share stories can help a child through their grieving process.
Often we feel that we should be sad about the grief, we can also share memories that make us happy. Allowing time to talk about the deceased pet can help balance out the grief with laughter and can help children through their own grieving process.
Caring for a pet often involves a level of routine in a child’s life. The death of a pet can interrupt the child’s routine. Maintaining a routine helps provide consistency for the grieving process. Bedtimes, naptimes, mealtimes, services, etc. should be maintained. It may be helpful to integrate a time to memorialize a pet into the routine. For instance, if a certain time in the evening was devoted to pet care, it can become a time of remembrance. The family could light a memorial candle or share stories to honor the pet.
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