The bond between a child and a dog can be very strong, and when that bond is severed by the reality of unequal lifespans, it can be incredibly difficult for the whole family. Sometimes, the passing of the family dog is a child’s first experience with death and can therefore be especially painful and confusing. If you’re worried about how your child is dealing with an imminent or recent death of a family dog, consider these tips for helping her express grief while honoring the life of her furry family member.
When dealing with death, experts say it’s important for parents to be honest with their kids and to use clear, age-appropriate language to explain the situation. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, parents can accidentally cause anxiety in kids if they try to protect them by using euphemisms. The term “put to sleep” can be confusing for little kids, and using it to describe euthanasia might result in kids being fearful of going to sleep themselves.
Parents are also cautioned against trying to soften the blow by saying the dog ran away. The Humane Society of the United States warns parents that children who’ve been lied to may expect their pet will come home eventually, and will feel betrayed if the truth comes out.
Because misleading information (while well intended) can have traumatic consequences for children, experts say it’s best for parents to be clear and real with their kids. Parents should explain why the dog died, what happens to a dog’s body after he dies, and why the pet won’t be waking up again.
It can be hard to explain death to kids (especially when you are grieving yourself), so many grief counsellors recommend using age-appropriate children’s books to get the conversation going.
Retired school teacher Karen Nicksich was inspired to author one such book when her Golden Retriever, Max, entered the final phase of his life.
“As I was writing the book, Max laid next to me the whole time,” says Nicksich, who found writing helped her deal with her own grief. “The day it got published was the day that Max crossed over.”
The book Max inspired, The Time of My Life, helps children understand the death of a pet and to be grateful for the time they spent together. The story follows a young girl named Anna as she learns to celebrate the time she’s had with Dante, an old Golden Retriever.
Local libraries and book stores can often help parents find other age-appropriate pet loss stories that kids can read on their own or in the lap of a comforting grown-up.
Reading a story can help children understand what’s happening, but putting their own feelings to paper is beneficial, too.
“Have your children write a letter to their dog telling the dog what they will miss,” Nicksich suggests, adding that kids who can’t write yet can be encouraged to dictate a letter to an adult and then add their own artistic touch.
“If your child is young, have them draw a picture of the dog.”
The act of letter writing can help kids (and parents) express grief, while at the same time providing an opportunity to tell the pet anything that wasn’t said before the dog died.
When using grief letters to help kids process death, grief experts note it’s important to take care to ensure young children don’t get confused and start thinking that their loved one has just moved to a new Zip code. For this reason, parents may consider having children bury any letters they write to their departed dog.
Sometimes (like in the case of an accident) dogs die suddenly, but in cases of planned euthanization, families should take advantage of knowing exactly when they’ll be saying their final goodbye. According to Nicksich, the night before a scheduled euthanization is a good time for the whole family to say goodbye.
“Sit on the floor with your pet and tell them how you feel. The dog understands what you are saying,” she says. The retired teacher suggests encouraging kids to tell the dog how he or she made them happy and what they will miss about their time together.
If the family dog dies without warning, parents can still implement some quality time as a family to remember and honor the beloved pet. The ASPCA suggests parents sit down with their kids and share memories of time spent with the dog. Although kids may experience sadness while discussing a recently deceased pet, parents can also help them remember happy memories and encourage them to celebrate the good times. According to the ASPCA, coming together to talk after a pet’s death helps kids realize that they’re not alone in their grief, as the whole family is feeling the same way.
“For very young children, buy a dog puppet that they can talk to when they get lonely,” says Nicksich, whose suggestion is backed up by academic studies and grief counselors.
Puppets can be a great tool to encourage a dialog between a child and her dead loved one, but other forms of play therapy, like Play-Doh games, can also help. Incorporating play into the grief experience helps kids act out the ways in which the death is impacting them emotionally, and it can spark important conversations about grief between kids and the adults in their lives.
Parents may find they’ve been hit with a double dose of grief when struggling to help their kids (and surviving pets) process the loss of a pet. It’s important to know that adults don’t have hide their feelings from their kids. Being open about how you feel will let your child know that their feelings are okay, too. Go ahead and cry together, and don’t be afraid to seek help for your own grief if you need it.
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About the Author: Heather Marcoux is a freelance writer in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but the addition of a second cat, Specter, and the dog duo of GhostBuster and Marshmallow make her fur family complete. Sixteen paws is definitely enough. Heather is also a wife, a bad cook, and a former TV journalist. Some of her friends have hidden her feed because of an excess of cat pictures. If you don’t mind cat pictures, you can follow her on Twitter; she also posts pet GIFs on Google+.