Losing a pet is never an easy thing to go through for anybody. Pets are part of our everyday lives and truly become part of our families. As hard as it is it for adults to lose a pet, it can be even harder to explain this loss to our children and help them through this tumultuous time. There is no easy fix for this heartbreak, but there are some things that you can do to ease the pain and help them process their grief in a healthy way.
Let them say goodbye if at all possible.
This can’t always be helped, as pets are sometimes taken from us suddenly. However, if you have an old cat you are taking to the vet because she has been steeply declining, talk to your kids about how she is sick and allow them some time to give lots of cuddles and love, and say goodbye just in case.
Make Memorial Stones
Growing up, many of us have buried a pet or two in our backyard, but in today’s age of moving around this opens up the new complication of gravesites being left behind. A great way to bypass the awkward conversation of telling your six-year-old that you are not digging up their dog to move to the new house is to create memorial stones. There is the option to purchase a memorial stone, but making one can be a great way to do a family project to help everybody heal. Memorial stones can be easily made by pouring quick-set concrete mix (follow the instructions on the package) into a tin pie pan and decorating it with glass stones or rocks
Hold a funeral
Just as when a human relative passes away, holding a funeral can offer much-needed closure to grieving families. If the kids are old enough, have them write letters or draw pictures for their pet to put in the grave. Go around the circle and have every member of the family say a small eulogy if they are able, and a prayer if appropriate for your family. If this was a long-time family pet and you have close family/friends nearby who also knew the pet, include them as well. It can be comforting for children to be able to share this experience with people they love and trust.
Read a book
There are many books that touch on this subject aimed towards children. Some tried and true options include The Rainbow Bridge…A Dog’s Story by Judith Kristen, I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm, and The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst and Erik Blegvad, among many others. Another good book that helps explain death as a concept for children is WhenDinosaurs Die by Laurie Krasny Brown. Not only can most of these be found in bookstores (brick and mortar, as well as online), many can also be found in your local library. (Pro-Tip: practice reading these alone before reading them to your kids if you are prone to crying during sad books.)
Look at photos and talk about their lives
The most important part of helping kids process this big life change is to allow them a safe space to talk about their very big and very valid feelings. Go through your photos of your pet and talk about happy memories you have with them. Encourage them to tell you how they are feeling, and share with them how you feel. It’s important that they see that you are also sad, and how you process your sadness, so they can model their own behavior based on that. Tell them it’s okay to be sad, and it’s not only okay to cry, it’s healthy and normal. If all else fails, enjoy lots of hugs and pop in Marley and Mefor a good family cry.