What do you do when the family pet dies and your child has so many questions that you feel unable to answer? It’s a tough one. But how we handle this kind of situation will likely have a lasting impact on our children. Dealing with loss and grief is a difficult but unavoidable part of life and if we deal with it correctly in the early years, it will help our children cope with more difficult losses when they are older. So how can we help our children? Here’s a few ideas.
- Don’t try and replace the pet straight away, the child can feel that the loss isn’t being treated in a serious way.
- Encourage your child to think of good memories of their pet. If they are old enough, they could write a story or draw pictures to remind them of all the good times they had with the pet.
- Don’t compare animal death, with human death. For example, “Fluffy wasn’t well, the same way great Aunt Bertha wasn’t well, and so they are both in Heaven now”. As Christians, we need to teach our children about the soul how it represents an important distinction between us and animals. Personally I do not believe animals go to Heaven, because I don’t believe they have a soul, so I can’t lie to my child about this. Our soul, according to the bible is the part of us that lives on after death, and where our soul goes after death is a consequence of our decision of accepting salvation or not. So we shouldn’t trivialise this.
- I do understand it’s hard to explain where pets go after death, and when your child asks “Is fluffy in Heaven?”, it is so tempting to say, YES of course! We did this with the death of our cat Cookie, when child number 1 was only 3 years old. But it was a mistake, and we have since learned from our mistakes. In his parenting book Genesis of a Legacy: Raising Godly Children in an Ungodly World Ken Ham has the perfect response to this question. He says that when children ask him if their are animals are in Heaven, he responds with “Well, if your pet is needed in heaven, I’m sure God will make sure he is there.” Which is of course dodging the question! But it does work, without lying to the child or shattering their illusion of where there pet could be.
- Don’t blame a specific person –even if you think your child isn’t listening. Children have great hearing and if they hear you spouting hateful comments they will imitate you. For example, the cat gets knocked down on the road. Do we go off on a big rant and shout abuse and mutter insults at or about the driver? NO. Even if they were speeding, even if it was their fault, we cannot model hatred, and expect it not to impact our children. These types of real life parenting scenarios are the ideal situations in which we teach our children how to handle grief and anger. We can show them how to work through their feelings. We can use a bad situation to teach them about forgiveness and mercy.
- Don’t use the term ‘put to sleep’. A child may not be able to distinguish the difference between this type of sleep and normal sleep. You don’t want to give a child a fear of sleep.
- Ask the child how they feel, rather than assuming you know how they feel. We should do a lot of listening and only speak when we need to respond to a question. Children are very good at talking things out loud in order to make sense of a situation.
- Reassure your child that it was not their fault, as guilt is a very common first reaction in the grieving process.
- If your child takes the loss of their pet badly, you need to make other adults aware of this, such as their teacher, childminder etc.
These are just a few ideas, what other advice would you give parents who are dealing with this sort of situation? I’d love to hear from you! Please get in touch via comments below!