Losing a Furry Family Member:
Helping Kids Cope
Being a parent is the most rewarding experience of my life. Every day, my kids teach me something new about myself, the world around me and the overall human experience. I do have to say, that while my children are certainly my entire world, my parenting adventures actually started with a little black kitten named Ally. My husband and I found the little stray when we were still dating in college. She was our first pet together and saw us through marriage, moves, jobs and children. She was an instant best friend to both our kids, and her relaxed, loving nature helped inspire their current love for animals.
After 16 years of loving our Ally cat, our family had to say goodbye to her last month. While I knew this day would come and also knew it would be hard, I never truly anticipated the intense sense of loss our children would experience. My heart broke all over again as I helped them grieve her death, each in their own way. My daughter needed a good cry and closure, actually saying goodbye and keeping her collar close by her bedside. My son kept things in and needed long talks about the importance of sharing our feelings even when they make us sad.
Ally was our first family pet, and helping our kids cope with her loss has been a completely new experience. Thankfully our veterinarian was able to help. He provided information and literature on ways to process their pain.
Sharing the News and the Grief
One of the most difficult parts about losing a pet may be breaking the bad news to kids. Try to do so one-on-one in a place where they feel safe and comfortable and not easily distracted.
If your pet is very old or has a long illness, consider talking to kids before the death happens. If you have to euthanize your pet, you may want to explain the following:
- the veterinarians have done everything that they can
- the pet would never get better
- this is the kindest way to take the pet’s pain away
- the pet will die peacefully, without feeling hurt or scared
Our vet also reminded us to that when you have to euthanize a pet, be careful about saying the animal went “to sleep” or “got put to sleep.” Young kids tend to take things literally, so this can make them think the animal could wake back up or even conjure up scary ideas about their own sleep.
If the pet’s death is more sudden, calmly explain what has happened. Be brief, and let your child’s questions guide how much information you provide.
Stick to the Truth
Avoid trying to gloss over the event with a lie. Telling a young child that “Buster ran away” or “Max went on a trip” is not a good idea. It probably won’t alleviate the sadness about losing the pet, and if the truth does come out, your child will probably be angry that you lied.
Help Your Child Cope
Kids usually feel a variety of emotions besides sadness after the death of a pet. They might experience loneliness, anger if the pet was euthanized, frustration that the pet couldn’t get better, or guilt about times that they were mean to or didn’t care for the pet as promised.
Help kids understand that it’s natural to feel all of those emotions and don’t feel compelled to hide your own sadness either. Showing how you feel and talking about it openly sets an example for kids. You show that it’s OK to feel sad when you lose a loved one, to talk about your feelings, and to cry when you feel sad. And it’s comforting to kids to know that they’re not alone in feeling sad.
Perhaps most important, talk about your pet, often and with love. Let your child know that while the pain will go away, the happy memories of the pet will always remain. When the time is right, you might consider adopting a new pet — not as a replacement, but as a way to welcome another animal friend into your family.