Owning a pet can be an extremely enriching, rewarding experience for the entire family. Children in particular may become very attached to the family pet. Their cat, dog or rabbit may be one of their closest companions. Unfortunately, losing a pet is something every family has to deal with, be it through an accident, illness or old age. As the parent, it is your job to talk to your children about the loss and help them work through the grieving process.
Choose an appropriate place and time to tell your children their pet has died. Do it somewhere they will feel safe and comfortable. Turn off your cellphone and make sure you won't be disturbed or distracted when you're sharing the sad news.
Talk to your children separately if they are in different age groups. For example, a 6-year-old child will be able to handle more information than a preschooler. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry states that preschoolers view death as temporary; broadly speaking, AACAP offers that it is not until the age of 9 that a child fully comprehends the finality and permanence of death. Base the information you give your children on their maturity level as well as their actual age. If you tell an older child at the same time as his much younger sibling, the older child may ask questions that it would not be appropriate to answer in front of the younger one.
Tell your children what has happened to your pet in simple terms. Stay calm and keep your voice warm. Be honest with your children. It may be tempting to say that your cat has gone missing or your dog has gone to stay with a relative, but this won't avoid their feelings of loss, and you will have a difficult situation to deal with if they find out later you have lied. If your child is old enough, you may want to have a deeper discussion about death and what may happen to people and animals after they die, touching on your faith if appropriate.
Comfort your children. Let them react naturally to your news. They may cry, express anger or feel guilty that they were not able to keep their pet alive. Encourage them to talk or write about how they are feeling. Help them make a scrapbook of photographs of your pet. Share your own emotions about the loss of your pet. Show your children that it's OK to cry when you're sad and talk about your feelings when life is difficult. You may want to hold a ceremony to pay tribute to your pet, which could involve the whole family and give your children the chance to say goodbye.
Consult books to help you explain your pet's death to your children. AACAP recommends "The Dead Bird," by Margaret Wise Brown; "Badger's Parting Gift," by Susan Varley; and "The Tenth Good Thing About Barney," by Judith Viorst.