Fight the Urge to Cheat Death
If you’re the first to discover that the goldfish has gone belly up, avoid the temptation to replace it with a new one. Too late? ’Fess up before your child catches on. You might say “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you Goldie died. I got this fish to protect you from feeling sad because I love you.”
Let Kids Mourn in Their Own Way
Each child has a different way of responding to loss, notes Claire Sharp, D.V.M., a staff advisor at the Tufts University Pet Loss Support Hotline. Some kids get angry; others may wonder if they caused their animal’s death and feel guilty. If your child doesn’t open up first, talk about your emotions (“I miss Bear so much. How do you feel?”). Then listen to what he says without judging it.
Rehash Your Past
Share a story about the time you lost a beloved pet. “It’s important to let children know that their grief is normal,” explains Dr. Sharp.
Pull Out a Book
Reading about characters in the same situation can help kids move on, says William DeMeo, Ph.D., a psychologist in Cincinnati, OH. One to try: Goodbye Mousie by Robie Harris, the tale of a boy who struggles with a range of emotions when his cherished pet mouse passes away.
It’s tough for a child to understand the decision to euthanize an animal, but soft-pedaling the issue by saying your pet was “put to sleep” or “went to a farm” isn’t helpful, either. “Be clear that your pet won’t be coming back — and that he’s no longer in pain,” Dr. Sharp says.
Memorialize Your Pet
“Kids need to develop strategies for handling unpleasant situations, and holding some type of ceremony is a good way to bring closure,” Dr. DeMeo says. Kids can also write a letter to or poem about their animal companion, paint a picture, or light a special candle. That way, you show them you respect the love they had for their pet (even if it was just a hermit crab).
Don’t Rush to Get a New Animal
Ideally, wait until your child asks for one, as it can be hard to gauge when the time is right to introduce a “replacement,” says Dr. DeMeo. Still, if it’s been a few months and your child no longer seems distressed, it’s okay to bring up the idea of adding a new cuddly critter to the family.
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