A pet’s death hits hard. Pets fill your house with love as part of the family. They are the first being you say hello to in the morning, serve as your daily companion, and are the last one you say goodnight to. Their loss creates a void in the house that can’t be replaced. Unfortunately our pets do not outlive us, making inevitable that at some point we will have to talk with our children about the death of a pet.
We recently lost our sweet puggle, after 17 great years. It was this experience that made me realize how unprepared I was to talk to my 3.5 year old about death.
I Created Confusion
Our son was confused and it was my fault. I was candid with my son about our dog’s passing and explained the rainbow bridge. However, to my dismay, my son also wanted to travel “across the stars into space to heaven” to visit our sweet puggle. Who could blame him? I described it as a near utopia, where you must walk over a rainbow bridge to enter. I explained Sladki’s death as I wanted to hear it rather than on terms for a three-year-old. My intention was to give him a peace of mind about our dog’s death but instead I created confusion that our dog voluntarily moved to a new fabulous place where he is running free, without us.
So after this SNAFU, I realized I was in over my head. I researched the best way to discuss the loss of a pet with a child, and here they are:
1. Discuss Death Directly
Death is overwhelming for anyone. But learn from my mistake, use the words “death” and “died” to explain what happened. Don’t cringe, death is as much part of life as life itself. This does not mean you need to explain every gory detail but a simple and direct conversation about death is important. It’s equally important to avoid using words that may confuse your child, such as your pet went to sleep, crossed over, and even heaven. Rather than soften the loss, these euphemisms may just confuse your child, as they did ours.
2. Avoid Lying
At first blush it might seem easier to avoid the entire conversation but don’t. It’s a teachable moment for everyone and avoidance does not teach your child about life. So discuss what happened in an age appropriate fashion. You know your child best so be candid and give them as much detail as you believe they can handle.
3. Expect To Have The Conversation More Than Once
Grieving is a process. Prepare to have the conversation repeatedly. A young child is going to have questions and is not necessarily going to understand death’s permanence. We’ve had the conversation about Sladki’s death at least five times and I expect that number will continue to increase. Sometimes my son has additional questions, sometimes we repeat what we’ve already discussed. It’s not a conversation I planned to have repeatedly, but I see how important it is to discuss it as my son understanding deepens as he moves through his own grief.
4. Choose A Ritual To Say Goodbye
It’s hard to move forward after a death without saying goodbye, which is why a ritual to do just that is so important. Our pet went to the vet and never came back, which has been beyond perplexing to our son. As such, we are going to perform a farewell ritual by burying Sladki in his favorite spot in our yard, under the fig tree. Not only will this give our family a chance to say our goodbyes, but it will create an enduring and sacred space where we can remember and reminisce about our beloved pet, because gone does not mean forgotten.
5. Grieve Together
Show your child your grief and grieve together. This will show your child that emotions are okay and “normal” particularly after a loss. Remember, grieving is part of the healing process, for both children and adults. Even though it’s inevitable, no one is ever prepared or ready for the loss of a beloved pet.
6. Remember Together
We don’t want our son to forget his first pet. So we commissioned a very special and custom oil painting for our home by Splendid Beast. We commissioned one of their oil paintings of our pet before, but this time it was in remembrance.
Sladki Sladki Sladki can’t you see. Sometimes your mug still hypnotize me. And we just miss your puggle ways, Guess that’s why they a joke and you’re so made.
Our peezy puggle, Always in trouble, But across the rainbow bridge you go, Feelin’ fresh cut figs in tow, Our dearest friend, to the very end. We know it was your time to go. Peace at last little pug, give em’ your best mean mug.