For most children, a beloved pet is their first best friend. Sadly, pets are often also a child’s first experience with loss. Because children do not have the same cognitive ability to deal with their emotions or understand their world at the level that adults do, it is up to the adults in their life to help them work through the very complicated process of understanding, grieving, and accepting death.
The first step in this process is telling the child that their pet has died. Try to avoid euphemisms like “put to sleep,” as they may become confused as to why their companion will not be waking up. When you are telling them, do so somewhere quiet and away from distractions. It will help them process what you have said and ask questions that will aid their own understanding.
One of the first questions they may ask is “why.” In the case of a humane euthanization, explain that the pet would have never gotten better and that this will end their pain. In the case of an accidental death, help them understand the simplest explanation of the event and allow them to ask questions. This will help you gauge what they are mentally and emotionally ready to hear.
Once the child understands that animal will not be around anymore, help them in coping with their grief. Encourage them to creatively memorialize their pet by drawing pictures, telling stories, or writing a poem. Let them talk to you about how they are feeling and reassure them that what they are feeling is natural. Don’t be afraid to share your own sadness with them. It can create a sense of solidarity in the midst of tragedy and give the child comfort that they are not alone.
Finally, let the child know that while the sadness will eventually end, the joy that the pet brings them doesn’t have to. Remind them that the love they had for their best friend doesn’t have to end just because the life did.