Although distressing, saying goodbye to a childhood pet can be an important part of growing up. Vet and dad-of-two Mark Pinches says honesty with your child is the best policy when your family pet passes away.
Australia is a pet-loving country and in most homes, a pet is valued as a family member. As well as providing companionship and unconditional love, pets can teach children about responsibility, respect, empathy, care and consideration. If you want well-rounded, well-adjusted offspring, buying a dog, cat, hamster or fish could be just what the psychologist ordered.
When a pet dies, it’s often the first time children encounter bereavement. As a parent, it can be distressing to see your child so upset, but vet and father-of-two Mark Pinches takes a positive view.
‘Death is one of the most valuable aspects of pet ownership in terms of a child’s subsequent psychological development,’ he says. ‘The loss of a pet can evoke powerful emotions but, if handled sensitively, it can make children more robust emotionally.’
Here’s Mark’s advice on helping your child to cope with pet bereavement:
Be honest – if you hide your pet’s death, your child may become frightened.
Don’t tell them ‘Timmy’s gone to sleep’ or, worse, ‘He’s run away’ – they will only find it more difficult to accept the finality of the death. Many an adult has memories of listening out for a scratch at the door.
If your child is too young to understand the concept of death, explain that your pet won’t be coming back. You can go into more detail at a later date.
If your pet’s been involved in an accident and your child wants to give him one last stroke, this may be possible. I will always ask my veterinary nurses to clean up an animal. Children usually respond well and it helps them say goodbye.
If your pet is being ‘put down’ and your child wants to be there, ask your vet. I’m happy to have children present, provided I’m satisfied they understand the procedure. Often, after I’ve explained everything, they ask to leave, but it helps them feel included.
Don’t be afraid to show your own grief. It will help your child to understand that we experience loss but can move on from it.
If you decide on a home burial, make sure you dig sufficiently deep to avoid your pet being exhumed by a fox. I made a shallow grave for our rabbit only to find it dug up the next day – very distressing.
If appropriate, encourage your child to make a memory box, including photos, drawings and one of your pet’s toys.
If your child is deeply affected and seems unable to move on from the loss, talk to your health visitor or your school’s family support worker, who may be able to offer bereavement counselling.