Kim Beair, MS, LPC, NCC & Dr. Kara Beair-Butler, DO
Inspiring Strategies for Success by Friends and Experts You Can Trust
Pets are a part of the family, and losing one can be devastating; especially for kids. Some families have a very hard time being honest, because the topic of death is hard for some people to approach. While it is easy to say that a human or pet is in a “better place,” kids need to have as clear a picture as they can without traumatizing them.
It is never good to tell a child the pet is “asleep.” This causes children to have anxiety, believing sleep causes death. Telling a child a pet has gone away only causes the child to think pets and other loved ones who “leave” will be coming back. Even if you are completely honest, your child’s concept of what death means is dependent on his or her age. Children can suffer feelings of abandonment when a pet dies, so keep an eye on behavior that is uncharacteristic, such as heightened medical complaints, more or less sleep, school or concentration problems, and regression to an earlier age stage.
In this age of video games and zombies, many children are exposed to scenarios that show death and killing as temporary. Death and dying should be concepts children understand, within the framework of your family’s belief system. Consider what media they have been exposed to because regardless of how honest you are, if they are hearing your information in conjunction with faulty beliefs that come from video games or the zombie phenomenon, your explanation may fall on deaf ears. Lastly, becoming preoccupied with death and morbid things can naturally occur when a pet dies, resulting in very detailed and odd questions about the whole death and dying process.
Euthanasia is an extremely sticky subject to approach with kids. My suggestion is to think about your child’s biological, cognitive and emotional readiness before explaining this heartbreaking process to your child. Within this particular topic, even teenagers and adults have differing ideas of what they can handle. Some feel they must be with their pet at the end, and some feel they cannot be present. If you have a family with more than one child, it is also important to make the kids aware of the same information. Telling an older child that Fluffy is being euthanized, while a younger child believes Fluffy just died on his own, can turn into disaster if the older child tells the younger one the truth without your knowledge.
Biological age is only one factor in a child coping with the death of the pet. Consider each child’s emotional maturity, and cognitive abilities when discussing this difficult topic. Let’s take a look at children from a developmental perspective, so you will know what to look for in terms of how your child copes. Honesty is always best when dealing with the topic of losing a pet, regardless of the age of the child.
If your child is in the 4th or 5th grade (around 10 and up), they handle death and grief more like an adult. Though they can accept death for what it is, they may not have the coping skills a parent does to deal with it appropriately. Keep an eye on them because the signs indicating they are not coping well may be more discreet those of younger children. This is where you can best utilize your belief system as a way to help them cope.
Between Kindergarten and 3rd to 4th grade, kids can accept the finality of a pet death, but can get into some more sophisticated thought processes that negate that finality. Bargaining with God or misplaced guilt over the pet’s death can get to them if you aren’t watchful, because they may not make you aware of their thoughts. Again, paying attention to their behavior is the first step. Of course, 2nd to 4th graders may have a better ability to speak with you about their thoughts upon asking, whereas younger kids may not connect their behavior to thoughts they are having.
Toddlers may simply react to the pet death the way you do, so understand their concept of death may not be as deep as you believe based on their reaction. Ask yourself if your child is mirroring you or another family member in their grief. Pre-K kiddos may reflect they understand the concept of death, but in actuality ask you months later if Fido is coming back, or at least think it.
Losing a pet is never easy for anyone in the family, and dealing with the added stress of ensuring each child is guided through the process adds an extra element to the grief process. I know when a pet dies the last thing you want to do is head over to the bookstore. If, however, you want to make the process a bit easier for your family, you can pick up some books for your kids that help them understand in ways that correspond to their particular age group. In times of grief parents can use all the help they can get.
Be mindful of immediately replacing your pet with another one. Do a check on your kiddo to ensure they don’t believe this pet may abandon them as well, before you put a bow around the neck of your new furry, winged or scaly family member.
Dr. Kara Beair-Butler, DO, is a mom of multiples, and Chief Resident Physician in Internal Medicine/Pediatrics at the University Of Oklahoma School Of Community Medicine
DISCLAIMER: The information presented in this email or blog and any related links is provided for educational, informational, and entertainment purposes only. You must never consider any of the information presented here as a substitute for consulting with your physician or health care provider for any medical/mental health conditions or concerns. Any information presented here is general information, is not medical advice, nor is it intended as advice for your personal situation. Please consult with your physician or health care provider if you have concerns about your health or suspect that you might have a problem.
image via © Adam Tomasik