Of all parenting tasks, one of the toughest is explaining the concept of death to a child. This is a traumatic event; one that we can't kiss and make better. It is a scary, confusing and painful time, especially if this is their first close encounter with death.
They know their animal companion is not present in their daily life. But, how can we explain death on a child's level of understanding when the topic is so difficult to deal with ourselves?
Children must be encouraged to express their feelings. The way we help them handle grief will influence the rest of their life. No matter how much we want to shield them from the pain, it is parent business to be honest.
Just explain in real words – death, died, long illness - about their pet friend's death. Don't hedge with platitudes, such as "gone to heaven", "went to sleep" or "passed on". Before about age seven, children do not understand abstracts like heaven. Speak plain truth – nobody knows for certain where we go when we die.
Put in simple words the difference between alive and dead. For example, when the family dog wasalive he could jump, run and fetch. But, now his body is dead. He can't move to jump or run. He can't see to fetch the ball.
One concern that is certain to come up is whether you, his dad or siblings are going to die. Gently reassure him you will be around for a long, long time. This is a real fear that often arises with the death of a family pet.
Be patient until you are sure your child understands the finality of death –their beloved pet is not coming back.
Children are astonishingly resilient, but they need our comfort and guidance to get through to the other side of this tragedy. Children need time to grieve.
They need time to process this life-altering experience. Ask your child how he feels. Telling them we understand how much they miss their buddy provides comfort they need.
Closure is important. A funeral or celebration of pet's life offers a time to say "good-bye". It's good to let everyone in the family share what part the family pet played in their lives. The pet burial or ash scattering is the final act of love from the deceased pet's family. Seeing the pet's body helps the child accept their cherished companion is not coming back home.
If your family is religious, you might consider a service that sends your child, who is older than seven, "a message from Pet Heaven". The letter will be written as if the family pet is writing personally from – well – heaven. Written "evidence" her dear pet is happy and thinking of her is a great comfort.
A candlelight ceremony has long been believed to bestow light for the deceased pet. Set up a "memory table" with the family pet's picture, collar, etc. Place two white taper candles on either side of the picture frame. Say a prayer or sing a song in tribute of the deceased pet.
The family pet that died can never be replaced. Bringing a "replacement" pet into the family immediately is not a good idea. Let your child's grief run its course before discussing the notion of adopting a new pet. You'll know when the signs are right to get another pet.
If we handle the death of a family pet correctly, our children will learn one of life's hard lessons. Dealing with death in a healthy way will follow your child throughout his life. When your son or daughter becomes a parent, they will have a strong foundation to help their children say good-bye to their pet companions.