For many Americans, pets are beloved members of the family. In fact, a Harris poll of pet owners found that 95 percent consider their pets to be like children. It makes sense, then, that when animals die, the grief can feel overwhelming for the whole family.
Just ask Ellen Pompeo and Ashley Greene, who recently said farewell to their precious pooches in emotional — and extremely relatable — social media posts.
Parents grieving the loss of a pet are faced with an additional hardship: explaining the loss to their kids.
What to do when a family pet dies
Dr. Robi Ludwig, psychotherapist and author, shared that 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, a pet's death can even be their first introduction to the concept of loss and parents may find books like "I'll Always Love You" - a book about losing a friend and expressing love - a good starting point.
Dr. Ludwig offered a few pointers for parents on how to have the conversation surrounding pet loss with their children:
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?
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.
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.