When a child's pet dies or has to be put down due to traumatic injury, disease or old age, explaining to the child in a meaningful way what death is can help the child come to proper grips with death later in life. In all matter, telling the truth about death in a gentle but firm way goes a long way to help the child cope with reality and life.
The Death of a Pet and Your Child
Explaining to a child that their pet has died likely will be one of the first encounters with deep grief your child will experience. How you handle the explanation will help mould your child to better handle grief in the future. Above all else; be honest.
While not being clinical, you don't want to allude phrases like (insert pet name) "went away" or "isn't coming home" as this will lead the child to wonder why. They will wonder why Fluffy 'isn't coming home' or why Rex 'ran away' and won't be back. They may think it was because of something they did. They assign guilt to themselves and this is unhealthy, and it is unhelpful in their understanding of death.
Pet Death: Accident, Natural Death, or Euthanize Out of Love?
A child may not understand death but they understand pain. If your child's pet has been in an accident such as hit by a car, they understand painful suffering.
A child of 4 or 5 years old will at this age exhibit empathy for the physical pain of others, including their pet. Explaining to them that the animal doctor has either tried all that can be done or that there is no further treatment that will make the pet better. Next, explain that a decision needs to be made. This is a lot to take in. Let the child absorb this for several minutes.
Explain to the child that the pet needs our help to die so as to not be in pain anymore. Do explain that the process itself will not cause pain, but that it relieves pain, and that it allows the pet to die peacefully.
At the Vet's Office and Pet Death Explanation
If the time has come to euthanize the pet, the grieving child may not wish to be with the pet during the euthanization process. After the relaxant in given, if the child wishes they can come say goodbye to their pet as it gently leaves life.
Empowering the child to be part of the decision-making process will help the child feel that they did the right thing. Often, a fatally wounded pet such as a cat during painless euthanasia will purr loudly and greatly enjoy being petted as it fades away. A dog will often wag its tail and lick the hands of the owner. This is how the child should remember their pet; as their loving friend.
At least, offering to view and stroke the pet after death will assure them that the end came, and that their pet is no longer in pain.
Witnessing and being a participant in the decision process while painful will help instill a sense of closure for your child. They will understand that the pet did not suffer in the end, and also that he or she was not alone. Grieve with your child. Showing your emotions will make the child feel more comfortable with theirs. Cry not for them, but cry with them.
Show them that you miss the pet too. This validates their feelings of grief.
It may help the child if a small memorial is acquired in memory of their pet. Plant a tree or create a marker that will keep their memory alive. A framed shadowbox photo of Fluffy with one of the cat's favorite play-toys encased within will make a memorable keepsake that the entire family can see.
If the child wishes, this can be kept in the child's room or, in the family room for all to see. Avoid putting the memorial into a shoe box and shoving it under the sofa or into the closet. It should be visible for the child, and for the family.
Without being too quick to rush out and procure a replacement pet immediately, just be with your child during this time. Allow the child to come to grips with the broken bond of love they had with their pet. Encourage them to talk about their pet and how they feel. Drawing pictures and reviewing photographs of their pet can be helpful.
Discuss adopting another pet when they are ready. Let them see the pet and choose their next pet themselves. The sparkle in the eyes of a mischief puppy will be their cue. Allow the child to fall in love with a new pet all over again.