Helping Children Deal with the Loss of a Pet

Perhaps next to the sex “talk”, one of the most difficult discussions to have with a child is that of the death of a pet. A child’s first experience with death is often with the loss of a pet. The goldfish dies, the hamster stops spinning in his wheel. Whether the pet was euthanized, or died suddenly, the child’s emotions must be taken into consideration.

A parent, even in the midst of their own grief, must set the tone for their child.  Depending on the age of the child and their emotional makeup, their reaction may run the gamut from an explosive outburst of anger and denial to a shoulder shrug and a desire to be alone. All reactions are ok. There is no one way to grieve. A child may need to be held and consoled, or may need time and space alone to process the loss.

Expect surprising questions. When our dog was hit by a car and killed, my husband and I buried him in the yard before our son came home from school.  We wanted to spare him the trauma of seeing his beloved dog’s shattered body. When we told him the news, he wanted us to dig him up so that he could see him one more time. Instead, we collected pictures of Marbles and made an album of fun times.

We framed my son’s favorite picture of Marbles and put it on his nightstand, so that he was nearby at night.

Other rituals may also help bring closure not only for the child, but for the entire family. If you choose to have your dog cremated and buried in the yard, have the child make some kind of marker.  It could be as simple as a laminated drawing for a young child, or a cross or other marker constructed by an older child.  Perhaps the child could gather flowers to put on the grave or put the dog’s favorite toy on the site. A ceremony helps to anchor the fact that the dog is truly gone.

Even after a ceremony, a younger child may still ask, “where is Fido?”

After all, in cartoons, the characters die but are alive and active the next day on the screen. Separating real life from television is difficult, and the child will need to gently be told that Fido is gone forever. The initial grief may reappear several times before the understanding of forever is clear. In the days and weeks after Marbles death, our son would bound in from the school bus looking for her.  I could see the sadness come over his face when he realized there was no dog barking at his feet ready to play fetch.

Children, like adults, don’t grieve in a linear fashion.  There will be days that we all seem to be fine, and life goes on, but some trigger brings us back to our grief and we are blue. Look for those signs in your child. Take notice if they are acting out, or afraid to go to sleep, or spending time alone. That is the time to talk with them about the good times with your pet. Share your favorite stories and encourage your child to do the same.  I suggest writing a love letter to your pet. What better way to remember how precious and special your pet was to your child and the family?

Questions may come immediately, or over time. A child may ask, “Where did our dog go?”  Your answer may be consistent with your religious beliefs.  When our son asked that question we answered, “Marbles is in heaven. Wouldn’t you want dogs in heaven if you were God?”  For our son that was a very comforting answer since he had come to know heaven as a beautiful place filled with light and goodness.

When is a good time to get another dog?  That is different for every family.  But you will know.  You will feel your heart beginning to mend, you will need your afternoon walk with a leash in your hand, and your throwing arm is itching to pitch. That is when you realize that Charles Schultz was right when he said, “Happiness is a warm puppy.”

Lu Pierro is the author of All Dogs Go to Heaven, a Guided Grief Journal

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