The death of a pet is never easy, regardless of the owner's age or life experience, but children often seem to take the death of a pet much harder than parents, since they don't have the benefit of perspective. Older owners can foresee the death of a pet even before the pet arrives home, but a child may expect a beloved pet to live forever. Preparing your child for the death of a pet requires a careful blending of reality, fantasy, truth and imagination.
First of all, if a child expresses an interest in a specific type of pet, a hamster for instance, then the parent needs to provide him or her with instructive literature on that animal. There may also be videos available which discuss animals at a child's level. It is important for parents to discuss all aspects of the proposed pet, from feeding to maintenance to lifespan. Small children need to understand that a live pet can easily become sick or die if owners fail to feed it or take it to the animal doctor. This early understanding of the limitations of a pet can motivate the child into providing better care.
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After a pet has been introduced to the family for a period of time, children may become very emotionally attached. A pet can become a child's emotional confidant, providing a non-judgmental role separate from parents or siblings. This is what makes the death of a pet so difficult for many children. The death of a pet for some children is no different than the death of a human relative. It is important that parents and older siblings spend enough quality time with a child, so that he or she doesn't become too emotionally invested in a pet. This is not to suggest complete emotional detachment, but a child needs to feel that he or she can also find empathy with his or her human family.
The most difficult time to discuss the death of a pet with a child is when the pet is actually dying. Children may sense something is wrong with a pet, but they still seek out interaction. Some animals have a natural instinct to hide their true health conditions, so a child may be confused by the pet's seemingly healthy behavior.
This is a good time to explain the imminent death of a pet in oblique terms. Spend time remembering all the positive experiences your family had with the pet, and remind your child that the pet has lived a long and happy life. It may be okay to use euphemisms such as 'going to sleep' or 'playing in Pet Heaven' at this point. Smaller children don't need to hear every detail about the death of a pet, only enough to understand the need to let go.
One important step for a child grieving over the death of a pet is closure. If possible, allow the child to plan and deliver a funeral service for the pet. Take this closure ceremony seriously, and reward the child with a treat or special trip after the service.
The child may also want to take care of some of the maintenance chores, such as cleaning the cage or storing away pet accessories. On the other hand, this may also be too traumatic for the child, so you may want to take care of these chores yourself while the child is away. Avoid the temptation to heal the death of a pet with the immediate purchase of a new one. Children may initially want a quick fix, but they also need time to recover emotionally before taking on another pet.