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Help Kids Cope With Pet Loss

Learn how to comfort your child when a beloved pet dies.

Death may be the natural conclusion of life, but it’s among the most difficult realities humans confront. This rings especially true for children, whose first experience with death is often the passing of a pet.

Tried-and-true MK reader strategies
“I searched for a stuffed animal that looked similar to the dog we lost. My daughter was almost 4, and she slept with it every night. She is 16 now, and she still keeps it on her shelf, a nice reminder of our first lost loved one.”    —Patty Mahoney Kropp

“We bought our daughter the book Cat Heaven when we lost our cat and reread it when we lost two
more kitties. She still reads it when she misses them and found illustrations that look like them. Cynthia Rylant also wrote Dog Heaven; we purchased it for a friend when she unexpectedly lost her dog.”                 —April Cunningham

“We helped our dogs get their wings to become angels. We threw ‘fairy dust’ in the air to help them fly, then the next day a little figure looking like them showed up in my children’s rooms. My little ones say good-night to them every night.”
                            —Kathleen Salvio

“Sometimes the bond with a pet can be stronger than that with more distant family members, because kids see the pet every day,” says Michele Pich, veterinary grief counselor at the Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital in Philadelphia. She approaches the loss of a pet much like the loss of a human and advises parents to do the same.

How to handle a pet's death

How do you grieve? “Different responses from different children do not mean they’re dealing with the death in a better or worse fashion,” says local vet Marc Rosenberg, host of the former Philly-based talk-radio show “Speaking About Pets.” “Ultimately their acceptance will be influenced by the care and attention of a mature parent.”

Be honest. Being mature means not withholding bad news in an attempt to spare a child’s feelings. According to Dr. Rosenberg, holding back the truth can hinder kids’ ability to grieve properly.

Is the Loss Expected or Sudden?
When a pet dies suddenly and unexpectedly, the family may enter a lengthened period of emotional shock or denial. It's common to feel that you wish you could have done more with your pet or that you had more time to prepare.

When euthanizing a pet, the best way to help your kids prepare for this difficult process is to explain that death is the natural conclusion of life, that the pet won't suffer anymore and that their great memories will last forever; remain responsive to any questions or concerns they might have. Consider including older children in the planning process for saying goodbye to the pet.

Whether the death is sudden or expected, talking to a veterinary grief counselor and focusing on memorializing your pet can help. As Pich says, "Pet death can be traumatic, regardless of whether it is expected or not. It's important to find a way to find meaning in that pet's life."

Tailor with TLC. Tailor outlets of grief to your child’s developmental level and preferred method of expression: Verbal kids may want to talk about the loss incessantly. On the other hand, don’t be alarmed if kids who internalize things don’t speak about the topic for weeks. Artistic types, meanwhile, might feel better drawing pictures or creating a photo scrapbook of the pet.

Support from the pros. After a loss, sit down as a family with your veterinarian, who can explain the death from a medical standpoint — a tactic that helps kids understand that they could not have prevented the outcome. When David Kupersmith, a practice partner at Animal & Bird Healthcare Center in Cherry Hill, NJ meets with grieving families, he augments the parent-led discussion with clinical yet compassionate information.

Create a new normal. “The loss of a pet isn’t just about the loss of a being they love dearly; it’s also about the loss of the expected routine of care involved in having that pet in the family,” says Pich. “So children are losing their best friend and their sense of structure of how the day is going to be. Build a new routine: Children benefit from a structured and supportive environment filled with people and activities they can depend on.”

Memorializing Your Pet
After losing a pet, experts advocate celebrating what made him or her special to your family. Here are some ways to do just that:
  • Have a private cremation and let the kids spread the ashes in a special place.
  • Imprint the pet’s pawprint and name into modeling clay and let it harden, then display it in your home or yard.
  • Plant a tree or flowers, accompanied by a commemorative plaque, in your pet’s honor. For those without a yard, use a potted plant.
  • Create a scrapbook of pictures and items that you attribute to your pet.
  • Dedicate time each month to light a candle for the pet and have the family talk about their favorite memories.
  • Visit an animal shelter to meet new animal friends.

Tim Rattray is a MetroKids intern and communications student at Drexel University. Charles Abankwa contributed to this article.

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