The relationship between a child and a pet can be a very special bond. And when that bond is broken through the death of the animal, children can learn important lessons about life and death.
In many cases, the loss of a pet is a child's first encounter with death -- which makes this sad event an important teaching moment for parents and other adults. But as many counselors point out, it's essential that adults recognize that this is not just an opportunity for a child to practice coping with the emotions that death evokes. This is the real thing.
At these times, children need parents who are willing to give patient explanations, who are willing to listen to the child as she asks more questions or expresses her feelings and, let's not forget, who are generous with the hugs and kisses of reassurance that any child needs at a trying time.
What should parents say?
That varies with the age of the child but "the bottom line is to be honest with them," says Susan Cohen, director of counseling at the Animal Medical Center in New York City. "This comes as a surprise to many adults. They often see children as fragile."
But as Ms. Cohen points out, fudging the facts can upset a child more than the real story. "To say that after 15 years of a faithful family relationship, Fluffy decided to run off one day is worse than telling them the truth."
For children under five, who don't yet clearly distinguish between fantasy and reality, adults should be very concrete. Explain to the child that the pet no longer needs to eat, that it
doesn't grow, that it won't come back to life.
And don't be surprised if you carefully explain this, only to have the child ask the same questions the very next day. For children of this age, repetition is a reality check, and a necessary part of the learning experience.
It's also a good idea to follow the child's cues. Don't over-explain; just give clear, simple answers to the questions the child asks.
Children five to 10 years old may show a lot of curiosity about the details of the death. At these ages they know something about death, but they may also tend to think of death as something that can be avoided. On some level, they are likely to link death with weakness.
So don't be surprised, Ms. Cohen says, if you hear children at these ages make disparaging remarks about the pet, suggesting that if the animal had in some way been smarter or better, it would not have died.
By the ages of 10 or 12, children usually have a better understanding of mortality and what it means. But they will still need a sympathetic adult who lets them ask questions and is willing to listen as they express their feelings.
Despite these various reactions, children often instinctively know that such a loss calls for some kind of ritual response. Those reactions are healthy and parents should encourage children to mark the death in some way whether a funeral organized by the children or simply a time at which family members recall their favorite stories about the animal.
Books are always a good tool for parents to use in explaining life and death to children. Here are five that are favorites of pet loss counselors I talked with:
"When a Pet Dies," by Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers).
"The Tenth Good Thing About Barney," by Judith Viorst.
"Charlotte's Web," by E.B. White.
"Lifetimes," by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen.
"I'll Always Love You," by Hano Wilhelm."