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Video: Talking to your children when a pet dies

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    TAMRON HALL reporting: This morning, PARENTING TODAY , how to talk to your kids when a family pet dies. Dealing with death is one of the hardest parts of anyone's life, but your first encounter as a young kid can shape how you deal with grief for years to come. Robi Ludwig is a psychotherapist and contributor to care.com. Robi , good morning. Good to see you.

    Dr. ROBI LUDWIG (Psychotherapist): Good morning. It's good to see you, too.

    HALL: This is a tough one.

    Dr. LUDWIG: I know.

    HALL: But a lot of parents relate to it. So how important is it that you turn this experience of loss into one of those, I hate to say it, but teachable moments?

    Dr. LUDWIG: Right. And it usually is a child 's first experience with death and loss, so it's really important that parents view this as an opportunity to help them get through the grieving process in a healthy way.

    HALL: You've got some tips. But before we get to those tips, is there something that you think the parents should absolutely avoid when dealing with this crisis?

    Dr. LUDWIG: Don't lie and don't use euphemisms.

    HALL: Huh.

    Dr. LUDWIG: So don't say the dog ran away and maybe the dog will come back, or the dog -- even the dog passed.

    HALL: Yeah.

    Dr. LUDWIG: I mean, they really recommend these days that you say, 'Our dog died,' so that it's very clear cut and a child can kind of embrace that idea.

    HALL: Now, does that apply to most age groups?

    Dr. LUDWIG: In general.

    HALL: Really?

    Dr. LUDWIG: That's the current thinking, yes. And of course, the older child is the more they'll be able to conceptualize death.

    HALL: Right.

    Dr. LUDWIG: And between the ages of seven and nine there are a lot of questions about what happens when a pet dies or what happens when anyone dies.

    HALL: What about showing emotion? My mother will not be happy with me, but I have a mother who's a crier.

    Dr. LUDWIG: Oh.

    HALL: So every crisis she cried, then I'd cry. Should you hold back your emotion?

    Dr. LUDWIG: She's a modern woman. And that's actually considered very healthy. If a parent is having a feeling, it's important to share that with your child . Of course, you don't want to traumatize your child ...

    HALL: Yeah, sure.

    Dr. LUDWIG: ...and break down in front of them. But to say, 'I'm sad. You know, I'm going to miss'...

    HALL: I'm sad, too.

    Dr. LUDWIG: 'I'm sad, too.'

    HALL: OK.

    Dr. LUDWIG: And it's OK to cry. And it's OK for you to cry if you're feeling sad. And kids may have a lot of complex emotions just like adults. They might feel abandoned, they might feel angry.

    HALL: Wow.

    Dr. LUDWIG: And the thing is to keep an open communication so your child knows that it's OK to have a lot of feelings and that you are there to help them process it.

    HALL: All right, let's go through your tips. You already talked about this one, telling the truth. Again, I would imagine based on age, but the truth is what it is.

    Dr. LUDWIG: The truth is what it is. And so you want to help your child understand what's going on. And according to a care.com poll, 83 percent of families consider a pet part of the family. So this is really good training in general.

    HALL: Honor the child 's feelings. How do you do that? How do we make that happen?

    Dr. LUDWIG: Well, you don't shame them into feeling badly about being upset or crying.

    HALL: So you don't say toughen up, yeah.

    Dr. LUDWIG: Yeah, you don't say, you know, pull yourself up by the bootstraps.

    HALL: Yeah.

    Dr. LUDWIG: This is a time to say, ' It's OK to have your feelings, and I'm here,' because what can happen is sometimes kids get afraid that other people they love will die.

    HALL: Right.

    Dr. LUDWIG: And so this is an opportunity for a parent to say, 'I have no plans of going anywhere.' If a child says, 'Well, are you next? Who's next ?'

    HALL: Well, what if you have the child who keeps the feeling -- their feelings inside? How do you deal with that?

    Dr. LUDWIG: Well, there are different ways. So you may want to have a child draw a picture of the dog or share a happy memory or write a story. There are lots of different artistic ways to handle it. Or maybe it's gathering up a collage of lots of pictures of the child ...

    HALL: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

    Dr. LUDWIG: ...or the family with the dog so that they can memorialize the event.

    HALL: And that's one of your tips, memorializing the death.

    Dr. LUDWIG: Yes.

    HALL: Or maybe even like a little funeral for her, the pet.

    Dr. LUDWIG: We all need closure. Again, you have to follow what your child can tolerate.

    HALL: Hm.

    Dr. LUDWIG: Maybe you have a plant and you put a little name of the dog.

    HALL: Ah.

    Dr. LUDWIG: You have a little something that says, you know, we honor the dog, we're saying goodbye to the dog or cat or whatever the case may -- hamster, as you were talking about -- so that there is a sense of closure.

    HALL: And you say also, don't keep -- don't close the door, allow open communication . I mean, maybe in the middle of the night , if your child wants to talk, yeah.

    Dr. LUDWIG: Just say, 'If you ever want to talk about this, I'm here to help you talk about it.' And if your child doesn't show emotion, strong emotions right away, that's OK, too, because people grieve in different ways. So we're learning a little bit about our children during this process.

    HALL: Well, great advice.

    Dr. LUDWIG: And the goal's to help them get through to the other side.

    HALL: It's a sad topic, but you have great advice so I think a lot of people will appreciate it.

Image: A golden retriever
Chitose Suzuki  /  AP
Rex went to live on a farm? C'mon, Mom and Dad, tell the truth.
By Care.com contributor
TODAY.com
updated 3/29/2011 7:57:34 AM ET 2011-03-29T11:57:34

A recent poll found that 83 percent of pet owners on Care.com consider their pets to be part of the family, like children. When a beloved pet passes away, parents are faced with a tough conversation that has the ability to raise even bigger questions about a child's own mortality and fears of abandonment. For younger children, this can even be their first introduction to the concept of loss. Here are a few pointers for parents on how to have the conversation:

Tell the truth
To help kids cope with the loss of a pet, the first step is simply to be honest. Stay away from half-truths and euphemistic descriptions about death. Instead, gently explain that the family pet has died. At this point, take care to gauge your child’s reaction — does he or she understand?

Vote & discuss on TODAY Moms: How do you tell kids a pet has died?

A child’s understanding about death will vary based on age. According to the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, kids between the ages of 7 and 9 tend to have the most questions about death. If your child asks, “What happens after we die?” take this opportunity to explain your own beliefs.  It’s also OK to admit that you’re not entirely sure.

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Be aware that this loss can trigger fears in children that you or other people he or she loves will die. Be patient and address these fears as they come up. For example, if your child asks if you’re going to die and leave them too, reply with your own version of “Most people die when they are very old, and I don’t plan to leave this earth for a very long time.”

Honor your child’s feelings
The second step is to help your child to express grief. Encourage your children to make drawings or write stories about their pet. It’s also very helpful to have them recall happy memories, which is an important step in the grieving process. Kids may need to cry and express their feelings of loss, which is to be expected. They might also struggle with other complex emotions like anger, denial and guilt. Encourage your child to talk with you about his or her feelings. This will allow you to explain that this experience is normal and a natural part of the grieving process. Help your child to move through the depression stage and eventually come to a place of acceptance.

Find a way to memorialize this passing
Having a burial, memorial or similar type of ceremony helps to reinforce the importance of the pet’s life while also marking its death. This can be done in many different ways. Kids should be allowed to participate in whatever way feels right for them: marking the gravesite, making a garden stone with the pet’s name on it, planting a tree in remembrance of the pet, or designing a collage of the pet’s photos and placing it in a frame.

Managing loss and death is one of the most difficult aspects of life. But if handled correctly, the loss of a family pet can be a valuable opportunity to teach an important yet tough life lesson about how to deal with loss in an open and healthy way.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

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