When Your Child’s Pet Dies (2)
By: Beth McHugh 2006
In When Your Child’s Pet Dies (1), we looked at why it wasn’t helpful to your child’s emotional development to immediately rush out and buy a replacement for the newly-deceased Fluffy or Fido. Instantly replacing a dead pet denies your child an opportunity to go through the grieving process and, in doing so, learn a valuable life skill. In this case, the quick fix provides no long-term solution for helping your child to grow and learn.
When the family pet dies, it is psychologically sounder to allow your child to feel the pain of loss. It may be painful for you as a parent to watch your child suffer, but allowing them to go through that process is a gift that you can give to your child. A gift that will assist them in their future life.
So, be prepared to allow your son or daughter to cry, to get angry, to withdraw. Answer any questions they may ask as best you can, knowing that some of those questions may be unanswerable. Questions such as: “Why did this have to happen to my dog?” If you don’t know the answers to some of the questions your child may ask, just say so. Kids appreciate an honest answer, and can pick a lie in an instant. If you feel like shedding a tear yourself, go ahead. Kids need to learn it’s okay to cry and it is all a natural part of the healing process. And science has long known that tears contain stress hormones. It is, in fact, unhealthy not to cry when the impulse strikes.
Curiously, it is rarely the case that a child who has just lost their pet will immediately ask their parents for another one. They are, perhaps, more in tune with what is required than we adults. It is customarily the parents who will have organized an instant replacement within 48 hours. Parents do this for one of two reasons: they want to alleviate the pain they feel watching their child suffer, or they simply want to child to stop whining and the best way to do that is to offer another “toy”. Neither is helpful to the child.
So talk with your child about their dog and about death. Very young children will often ask about people dying as well. Be honest with them. Resist efforts to “fix” the situation. Always bear in mind that when the child’s best friend, sibling, parent, or grandparent dies, you can’t go off to the shop and replace them. Let them take this opportunity to learn to grieve in their own way and in their own time. Do not give them an instant “cure”. Providing instant cures can lead to other types of instant cures when things go wrong in later life. Cures such as drugs and alcohol to dull the pain when no other means of coping has been learned.
When your child is ready, they will ask you for another
pet. It may take weeks or months for this to happen. This is okay. When
it does happen, you will know that the child is ready to move on and
has fully accepted the death. And when that occurs, you can congratulate
yourself on having turned a negative experience into a positive one.