Last week, our cat died. Frodo was a stray tomcat we took in 11 years ago. We weren’t sure about his age, though we’re guessing he lived to be about 14 years old. He didn’t show any signs of illness, and while I knew he was old, I wasn’t fully prepared to get the call that he had gone to sleep and had not woken up.
Although I was very sad at his passing, I was happy that he lived a good, long life with us. I know he slipped away peacefully.
How My Daughter Took the News
I wasn’t prepared for the reaction of my 8-year-old daughter. She was in the car when I received the phone call telling me what had happened, and when I hung up, I told her. After she had expressed sadness, she began asking when we could get another cat. I had to tell her several times that this was something I couldn’t talk about now because I was really sad.
When she was two years old, my daughter drew a face on a balloon. When she accidentally let go of it, she sobbed herself to sleep. I expected her reaction to losing a cat would be greater than that. It wasn’t.
A Child’s Grief
Losing a pet is often the first experience of grief a child has. Give them the space and permission to work through it on their own terms, but with your love and support. Talk to them about how it felt when you were a child and lost an animal you loved.When it was time, my daughter created an elaborate funeral procession and burial for Frodo. She took comfort in making sure his grave was decorated with flowers, and she shed a few tears throughout the process. And that was okay.
Just like every adult grieves differently for each death, each child grieves differently for each loss. The way a child mourns a beloved pet at the age of four may change dramatically when he or she reaches the age of ten.
As a parent, you may feel uncomfortable talking about loss. You may get uncomfortable with how your child is behaving. Some kids want to immediately replace the pet, and others refuse to consider it. One child may not cry at all in front of you but will cry silently at night. Another child will talk about their pet endlessly and cry constantly for days.
As a parent, there are things you can do to help your child manage their sadness when their pet dies:
- Allow them to grieve in their own way, even if it’s not how you grieve. They may want to do an elaborate funeral or they may not want to do anything to remember their pet. Give them the freedom to mourn in a way that feels right for them.
- Expect delayed grief. Some children, especially younger ones, don’t fully understand what death means. The finality of it can be hard to comprehend and accept. They may seem calm until something triggers a memory.
- Give yourself space to grieve the loss. It’s absolutely OK to give yourself privacy and time to mourn.
- Talk about the pet you lost. Talk about the wonderful memories you have. Express your own sadness to your child and ask how they feel about it.
- Listen to them. Listen to them talk about the pet who died, about what they miss, or about wanting another pet to replace the one that passed away.
- Be careful with the words you use with young children. Telling your son that you “put Fido to sleep so he’s not hurting anymore” can cause fear or confusion. Do your best to explain the decision to euthanize a pet that is in great pain.
- Expect uncomfortable questions. When we thought we might have to euthanize one of our pets, my daughter asked if we do that to people. Children may question what happens to their pet when they die, or if they’ll ever see them again.
Losing a pet is often the first experience of grief a child has. Give them the space and permission to work through it on their own terms, but with your love and support. Talk to them about how it felt when you were a child and lost an animal you loved. Above all, let them know that the intense sadness they feel now won’t last forever.
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