Our family pet is dying, and my spouse and I have no idea how our kids will react. I remember how painful it was to learn that the “went to a farm” story my parents told me about my childhood pet was false. How do we talk to our children about this?
Kendra Doukas, licensed marriage and family therapist and assistant director at the Catalyst Center, Inc., shares the following tips for parents.
It is normal for parents to shelter their children from feeling painful emotions. While the intention is to protect them, avoiding the hard discussion does a disservice to children. Pet loss is often a first loss for children and can provide an opportunity for them to learn how to navigate grief in the future. Although it may be tempting to have your beloved pet “go to a farm,” or some other scenario that seems less painful, the far better solution is to create space for your children to process their grief. In this way, not only do we help our kids handle the current loss, but we also teach them how to cope with the loss of loved ones, be they human or furry, in the future.
Tips for helping your kids grieve:
- Let your children say goodbye through rituals. If your pet is up for it, plan a special last day together centered around their favorite place or treat, or provide comfort in the form of grooming, such as bathing, brushing, and petting. Help the children write letters or draw pictures. Make a ceramic paw print.
- Talk to your children honestly and succinctly. Set up realistic and accurate expectations about what is to come. Talk to them about a timeframe if one is known. If you can’t answer a question in a given moment, then simply follow up with them when you are able.
- Children will naturally be self-focused when processing a loss. Focus your information on how this loss affects them and their day-to-day world.
- Make time and space for feelings. Tell your children that any emotional reaction is normal and OK and that they will likely feel many different things, sometimes all at once. Don’t be surprised if your children seem “fine.” Kids sometimes process much more quickly than adults.
- Continue with grief rituals after the pet dies. For example, take turns sharing your favorite memories of your pet, or have the children write letters or draw pictures to the pet when they are missing him or her.