There’s a reason we call them our ‘fur kids’: pets are an integral part of the family. That said, you and your child are likely to have a very different experience of a pet’s death; primarily because children have no concept or understanding of death until they are 10 years old.
Here’s how to move them through a moment which, although sad, is also very important.
Be completely honest
As young children can’t grasp the finality of death, they have a hard time understanding what it actually entails, explains ECD specialist and preschool principal Joan Tindale. That’s why you need to let them know what is happening in concrete terms. Tell them that the dog is very sick, or that the fish has died, without using euphemisms. “It’s also important to be factual,” she continues. “Exactly what you tell your child about what happens after death, depends on your faith and your personal belief. But, you need to explain that when a person or animal dies, their hearts don’t beat any more and they can no longer breathe.”
Make room for emotion
Even if they don’t quite understand that Daniel the Spaniel isn’t coming back, your child will feel the impact of his absence. After all, even if there wasn’t a particularly strong bond with the child, pets are a daily presence and a part of the family. “Your little one will miss their pet just as they miss a much loved toy that’s now lost,” Joan says. “You need to allow them to experience that sadness without jollying them out of it.” Don’t give in to the natural temptation to ease the sadness by introducing a new pet to the family. “Grandparents and friends who die can’t be replaced,” Joan points out, “and children need to learn that death is a natural and inevitable part of life.”
Don’t hide your own emotion
As parents, our innate instinct is to protect our children from anything we feel may upset them – and that includes seeing us cry. But, says Joan, there’s no reason to hold back. “We need to let our children see us grieve, because parents are – after all – people who experience the spectrum of emotion,” she says. Also, don’t shy away from talking about the death. In fact, discussing it will be healing for all of you. “Discuss what you loved most about the pet. Say something like, ‘Daniel always made me smile when he stole tissues. What did he do that made you smile?’” Finally, accept that your child will not feel the loss as keenly as you do, and that they will move past it – possibly quicker than you thought.
More about the expert:
Joan Tindale is an ECD specialist and principal of Greenpark Nursery School. Read more about Joan Tindale here.
In her 16 years as journalist, Lisa Witepski’s work has appeared in most of South Africa’s leading publications, including the Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, Entrepreneur and Financial Mail. She has written for a number of women’s magazines, including Living & Loving, Essentials and many others, across topics from lifestyle to travel, wellness, business and finance. She is a former acting Johannesburg Bureau Chief for Cosmopolitan, and former Features Editor at Travel News Weekly, but, above all, a besotted mom to Leya and Jessica. Lisa blogs at whydoialwayscravecake.blogspot.com and lisa.witepski.blogspot.com, and tweets at @LisaWitepski.