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How to explain to your child that a pet has passed

Posted November 27

It's difficult to explain to a child the meaning of life and death. Oftentimes, a young child's first experience with death is the loss of a pet. After reading this article you'll understand the best way to approach the subject with your kids. (Deseret Photo)

When a pet dies, a lot of people feel that they've lost a family member. This can be harder for children, especially if they have never encountered death before.

How do you explain to a young child the meaning of life and death, without psychologically scaring them? I recently faced this challenge when our pet goldfish, Nemo, died. Nemo was a present for Johnny’s 5th birthday, but unfortunately he only lived a few short months.

We cared for our goldfish to the best of our abilities, but his time with us was cut short. The entire family was upset; this was our first pet and Johnny was very fond of the little goldfish.

My first instinct was to give Johnny a vague explanation of death and hope that he would forget about Nemo and busy himself with a nearby toy. Unfortunately, he had the opposite reaction. Even though I explained that Nemo was in a better place, Johnny didn’t understand why Nemo had to leave.

I started doing online research for the best way to tell Johnny that his beloved pet had passed. I found that experts and psychologists believe that my original tactic of brushing it off vaguely will only make the situation worse. It can leave your child feeling anxious and mystified, which is exactly what happened.

How children handle death

Of course, many parents face this struggle with their children. It’s a sad experience, but a common one. Pets can die because of an accident, illness or just old age.

As adults, we may have had a death or two in our lives, but for young children this is often their first brush with death. Your children’s age, developmental stage and experience can have a huge impact on how they cope with the situation.

My husband and I debated whether to flush Johnny down the toilet or bury him our backyard. We ended up finding a shoebox and a nice shady spot under a tree that Johnny could visit.

Mommy, is this my fault?

Children under the age of six can have an especially difficult time dealing with death. The have a hard time comprehending what death actually means and why your pet can’t wake up from his "nap". According to Tamina Toray, PH.D, you may have to tell your child multiple times that it’s not their fault and that death is a part of life.

It’s possible that your kids may also question the stability of other loved ones in their life. It’s important to stress that people in your immediate family are healthy and aren’t going anywhere.

I explained to Johnny that just because Nemo died, doesn’t mean that I will die, or his father, or his sister. Death is an inevitable fact of life that is completely natural. I found it helpful to explain to Johnny that his father and I love him very much and we will do everything in our power to protect him and make sure he is safe.

Coping with grief

I realize that grief is a process, and not an event that's over in an instance. My son used to have bed-wetting issues, but hadn’t had an accident in over a year...until Nemo died. I was concerned with this change in behavior, but found through my research that wetting the bed can be a part of the grief process and is usually only temporary.

I tried to show Johnny that I was also grieving too and it’s fine to be mad or angry, because death is a painful experience. We tried to focus on how excited Johnny was when he got his first pet, chose his name after Johnny’s favorite movie, and had the responsibility to help take care of him.

If you have older children, they usually have a better understanding of what death is and what it means. Questions about what happens to a body after death is common.

Susan Phillips Cohen, the director of Animal Medical Center, says the death of a pet is a great learning experience for kids. She suggests that if you are having a difficult time explaining the process of death to your child, try consulting your veterinarian or doctor. They can usually provide an age appropriate description that will quench your child’s curiosity.

Moving Forward

Fortunately, Johnny’s bed-wetting subsided after about a week. Losing our first pet as a family was difficult and especially tough for Johnny.

When we felt that Johnny could fully accept Nemo’s death, we started talking about getting a new pet. My husband and I decided we weren’t ready to commit to the responsibilities of a dog or a cat, but would be willing to try with another fish. We ended up getting two more goldfish for Johnny, Nemo Jr. and Dory, who are still happily swimming in our fish tank.

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