How to Help Your Child Accept the Death of a Pet
Ways to Remember a Pet
Create a scrapbook of pictures, artwork and written memories of the pet
Make a garden stone with the name of the pet
Design a collage of the pet's pictures and frame it
Plant a tree in remembrance of the pet
Have the child write a rhyming or acrostic poem about the pet
When the time comes, rescue a pet from a shelter in honor of the lost pet
Tell the Truth
The loss of a pet may be your child's first experience with death. It's a great opportunity to deal with the issue and prepare your child for future losses. Don't sugar coat the truth or tell a white lie about the pet being "asleep" or "lost". Whatever the circumstances, make sure the child understands it's not his fault. As parents we need to help our children through complicated emotions and facts of life and death is about as rough as it gets.
For a very young child who doesn't understand the concept of death yet, you may have to repeat that the pet is not coming back several times before the child stops asking for the pet. Forever is a difficult thing to explain to a young child, but he'll understand eventually. The death of a pet, especially if it is sudden, can leave a child confused and distressed. If possible, it's best to let the child to say goodbye to the pet while it is still alive.
Honor the Child's Feelings
Kids may hear a lot of unhelpful comments from their friends. They may be told to "get over it" or that the pet was "just a dog". As the adult, you must validate your child's feelings toward the animal. Kids can learn a lot about healthy grieving if you approach the circumstance wisely. The process of letting go of a beloved pet will be similar to the grieving process for a loved person.
The generally accepted stages of grief are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.
Kids may or may not pass through all the stages, and their reactions will vary. At first a child may not understand the pet is really not coming back, but once this truth settles in, he may strike out with inappropriate behavior. Take care to let the child know his feelings are okay, that it's okay to be sad about the pet. While we want to encourage children to express their sadness, we want to help them so they don't get stuck in depression. Ultimately as parents we want to help the child reach the final stage of Acceptance.
Encouraging Acceptance of the Pet’s Death
If you have an appropriate location, bury the pet and perform a funeral. If you cannot do this, hold a memorial. Both of these ceremonies help the child say goodbye to the pet in a way that is tangible. Let the child cry and express sadness so he doesn't turn the feelings onto himself. Creativity can purge the child of all kinds of feelings. Encourage him paint, draw, or tell stories about the pet.
You may be tempted to replace the pet right away, but hold off. Let the child grieve for the lost pet before making any decisions about a new pet. You want your child to understand that the new pet will be different, with a new personality and behaviors, and not simply a substitute for the old pet.
When a child loses a pet, it can be an opportunity to teach a valuable life lesson, or it can simply be a dark memory for the child. The difference depends on how you handle it. Support your child, listen, and encourage healthy grieving. Be honest and trust your gut.