The following is taken from the latest issue of Diane Cantrell’s wonderful newsletter “Preparing Children for Love, Life, and Loss”. Enjoy and feel free to comment!
Explaining death to a young child as well as dealing with the ramifications of such news is a stressfull task for even the most courageous parents.The loss of the family’s beloved pet is often a child’s first experience with death. Many parents are dealing with their own issues around the loss of their dear friend and family member as well as attempting to explain what is happening to their young child. Listed below are some frequently asked questions and responses that I hope will serve as a road map during a time when one often feels lost and without guidance.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do pre-school children view the death of a pet?
Pre-school children don’t have the ability to conceptualize the permanence of death. They think in terms of death as if someone is going on a trip or going to sleep. Though they can’t understand the finality of loss they do experience great sadness because they miss their pet’s presence. Unfortunately, children this age don’t have the ability to express their feelings in words. As a result they may act out their sadness by being irritable, oppositional, withdrawn, or aggressive.
Children from infancy to age 6 are also very egocentric. They literally believe that the world revolves around them and that things happen because of them. Thus, the child often blames him/herself for the death of the beloved pet. For example, if a child has been told not to pull the family dog’s tail, they may think that because they disobeyed this command the dog died.
What are some of the questions they may have?
Due to the child’s inability to conceptualize the permanence of death he/she may repeatedly ask when they will see their pet again or when the pet is coming home. Children may ask and worry about who is caring for their pet and how the pet is getting their needs met.
How can parents answer these questions?
When responding to children’s questions about death it is important to be honest without giving more information than the child can understand. For example, an appropriate response to a question about when the family will see their pet again is, “When a pet dies we are never able to see them again but we can remember them forever.” It is also important to reassure that the pet’s death is not due to anything that the child did or didn’t do.
In response to questions regarding the care of the pet it is important to let the child know that when animals and people die they no longer need to eat, sleep, play or go on walks. The young child may not fully comprehend this answer but it may relieve them of their worries. They do need to be reassured that the animal is not in danger or facing further harm.
Telling a child that their pet has gone to sleep may cause anxieties around their own sleep. Comparing death to falling asleep may be frightening to a child and lead to sleep disturbance.
In general, how can a parent help their child handle the death of a family pet?
There are many things parents can do to assist children in dealing with loss. They are:
1. Listen, validate and reassure. Be patient in answering repeated questions and assure children that it is okay/normal for them to feel mad, sad, or afraid and tearful. If your child expresses worry or sadness, you can provide validation by telling them that you feel sad as well. While acknowledging feelings be sure to let the child know that even though the feelings may be overwhelming they can handle them.
2. Observe. After the loss of a pet play close attention to your child’s play, artwork, and behavior for these are the blueprints to your child’s feelings and concerns. Remember, children ages 4-6 don’t have the language to express complex emotions but do so through their play and behavior. Notice any themes that may emerge in your child’s play and artwork. Also be aware of behavior changes such as increased aggressiveness, anger, or withdrawal. These are signs that your child is having a difficult time with the loss.
3. Engage. It is so important to provide opportunities to engage your child in conversation about the loss. Reading fictional picture books that address grief and loss can serve as valuable springboards for discussion. Having your child tell about their artwork can also lead to meaningful interactions. Assist the child in planning a special good-bye for their pet. It may be a traditional funeral or a memorial in which the children draw pictures for the pet, make gifts, and or take a special walk in the pet’s honor. Children have many good ideas about how they wish to say good-bye to their special family friend. Be sure to ask, listen, and assist in the implementation of these ideas.