Everyone always gets excited when a new pet is introduced into the family. In those joyous early days, we forget that pets typically do not live longer than we do. Thus, we often have to say goodbye too soon.
Whether it is a hamster, with a typical lifespan of 2 to 3 years; a dog with a lifespan of more than 8 years depending on the breed; or a goldfish that, if it lives in my house, has a lifespan of 24 hours—kids may learn about death sooner than you think.
While toddlers may be easily placated by saying that the fish needed to leave (and not go into any details about the death), it is important not to be too misleading. For example, if you say Fluffy went to live at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, your child might remember and wonder why Fluffy is not there when they see Grandma or Grandpa this summer.
Also be careful with wording. For example, don’t say Spot went on vacation. It may cause backlash later. When you finally announce you’re going on a family beach vacation, your child may wonder if the same demise may happen to them (or you!) as it did to the never-to-be-seen-again Spot!
Relate but Don’t Replace
While one option may be to quickly go and get another dog or cat, it may not be the best solution. (A child may not have the emotional attachment to the fish, and it may seem okay to get another goldfish right away.) However, think about your child first. Would another death in the family bring about the thoughts that they would be “replaced” so easily too? While replacing a pet may be in the best interest of the family, also consider the alternatives and whether your child might view it in a different way.
Instead of hiding it, get your child to be involved. Ask they how they want to say goodbye, if it is an option. Alternatively, have a child focus on “later” rather than the impending moment. Come up with ideas to remember the pet and honor them. Perhaps it is planting a flower or tree, displaying a photo in a special spot, or any of these other pet memento ideas.
Talk About It
Encourage them to talk about their feelings and let your child see your sadness. Yet, be careful with grief. You do not want your child to be worried, but it’s important for them to see that there is sadness, and how to process and bounce back from it.
Be Open to Options
Everyone processes the passing of a pet differently. Be open to what your child needs. Once we even let our youngest sleep with the cedar box containing our dog’s ashes on their nightstand for a few days after our dog’s passing. It helped with the transition. So be flexible, even if it is something you would not consider. If after a few weeks, it seems as if your child is having a hard time, reach out to their pediatrician for feedback and additional support.
How did you help your child cope with the loss of a pet? Share your experiences as it may help another family with their loss.