There are likely to be few circumstances more distressing to your child than the death of the family dog. While we all form bonds with our pets, children tend to grow much closer to them. In fact, according to one recent study, children have stronger relationships with pets, with lower levels of conflict, than with their own human siblings. Is it any wonder, then, that a dog’s passing can hit them hard?
As adults, many of us have developed coping mechanisms for loss. However, most children don’t yet have these in place — the loss of a dog may well be their first experience of death. Therefore we need to take additional care and consideration to provide them with the support they need. Unfortunately, it’s not always clear how we should go about this.
We’re going to take a look at a few key areas for you to focus on.
Be a Patient Guide
It can take some time for our children to be able to grasp a subject as complex as death. Many of us adults can still have trouble wrapping our heads around the enormity of it. Which is why we must approach the subject with patience and understanding. Depending on their age, there are going to be aspects of death that our kids just aren’t equipped to process. Before they’re 4 years old, the permanence of death is generally not something they can comprehend. It’s important therefore to take stock of what they are able to understand, and gently talk them through it.
So much of a parent’s role is to guide our children through difficult scenarios. We use the benefit of our experience to help them to navigate challenges. It’s no different here. Talk to them about what death means, and your own experiences of losing pets or family members. Books can always be a useful developmental tool, and there are many available that help explain death. Above almost anything else, you must invite them to ask questions. It’s a confusing, upsetting time, and discouraging their queries can make the situation worse.
Don’t Shut Them Out
We have a tendency in western society to treat death as a taboo subject; particularly where children are involved. We try to protect them from scary aspects of death, when really we should be demystifying it by keeping them involved in what is happening. There’s often a lot to arrange at this time, and by shutting them out you can make them excluded during a period when they might already be feeling adrift. Instead, make an effort to find positive ways they can make a contribution to the situation.
Memorials can be the perfect medium for this. Talk to your kids about what it means to memorialize their dog, and how it should be treated as a celebration of who they were. Introduce them to sources of pet urns so they can take responsibility for choosing the right one for your dog. Sit down with them to go through the family photos; find those moments that best capture your furry friend’s personality, and invite them to create a display. If you’re having a funeral, getting them to write a eulogy or compose a song can be an excellent focus for the energy of their grief.
Strive for Loving Honesty
Due to the fact that death can feel like such a negative subject, we have developed a collection of fictions to explain it away. While these half-truths or fables are never designed to be deceptive or malicious, using them still does our children a disservice. Avoid using phrases such as “they’re in a better place”, “they’ve gone to live on a farm”, or even “God took them”. These deflect telling the truth about what has happened, and more often than not lead to further questions that you might be unable to answer with honesty.
Never underestimate your kids capacity to handle the truth. You don’t always need to go into all the details, but by approaching the situation in a caring and honest way, you provide a good foundation for them to navigate their grief. Remember that your honesty should not just be situational, but emotional too. Talk to them about the pain you’re feeling, and give them space to express their own emotions.
When your family dog passes away, your child will be faced with a raft of painful and often confusing feelings. Approach the situation with patience, honesty, and inclusivity. Grief is always easy to handle when we work through it together.