It can be hard enough losing the family dog, cat or other pet, but trying to figure out how to help children cope can add to the challenge at an already difficult time.
It would be nice if there were one easy template to follow, but that’s not too realistic according to Dr. Laura Saunders, a Psychologist at the Institute For Living in Hartford. She said parents will have to personalize their approach based on the age and maturity of the child, and the level of attachment the child had to the pet.
However, there are some general guidelines she suggested, the first of which is honesty. The old idea of saying that a pet ran away, or went to live in a farm upstate, is not as effective as telling the truth. If you cat had cancer, explain it in simple terms and tell the child that treatment wouldn’t help. If the pet needs to be euthanized, explain that nothing would have made the pet better, and that the pet will pass away peacefully, without feeling hurt or scared.
Dr. Saunders also suggested preparing your child of what may come ahead of time if you can tell your pet is nearing the end of its life. She also said it’s important to validate your child’s feelings, to show them it’s okay to express whatever level of emotion they have.
As for after a pet dies, Dr. Saunders mentioned the idea of the “Rainbow Bridge,” which can help children with the concept of an afterlife, in which the pets will wait to be reunited with them someday. She also cautioned against immediately filling the void with another pet, instead suggesting that the whole family take some time to grieve before moving on.