By Ann Hohenhaus, DVM
In my last blog I wrote about children and pet loss based on a presentation given at The Animal Medical Center by Dr. David Schonfeld, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician. I recently posed some frequently asked questions about pet loss to him; here’s what he had to say.
Q: I just found out our 15-year-old family cat has a serious medical problem. What should I tell my children?
Begin by telling your children that your cat has a serious illness. In simple terms, appropriate to the children’s developmental level(s), help them understand what is wrong with the cat’s health (e.g., the heart is weak and may not be able to beat for much longer; the cat’s kidney isn’t working, which means he can’t make urine like he needs to in order to keep from getting very sick, etc.). Explain that you are doing what you can to take care of the cat and keep it comfortable, but unfortunately, the veterinarian does not feel she will be able to cure the illness; you are concerned that the cat may die from the sickness.
Remember, very young children have a short time perspective – dying “soon” may mean some time that day. If the illness is such that it will likely limit the lifespan of the cat, but death is not likely to occur within days, weeks, or even months, it’s probably better to say that the cat is seriously ill and may not be able to get over the illness (without suggesting it will likely die from the illness, unless the child asks a question about whether death is possible from the illness).
Some additional points to keep in mind: Children may worry that the illness can spread to them or others in the family – you may wish to reassure them that it isn’t contagious. Children often worry that they did, didn’t do, or should have done something to prevent the illness – explain that there is nothing they did to cause the illness and nothing that they or anyone else can do now to make it get better. They can, though, help to keep the cat comfortable. Share with your children how this news makes you feel (e.g., sad, worried about the cat, etc.) and what you are doing to help cope with those feelings. Once you have provided this information, stop and let your children ask additional questions and react to the information. Take your lead from your children about how to continue the conversation.
Q: Some parents want to replace a dead pet without telling their child the old one has died by substituting a similar pet without the child’s knowledge. Why is this problematic?
Children begin to understand death at a very young age – well before most parents think they do. Replacing a pet without acknowledging the pet’s death may suggest to children that you don’t think they can handle the reality or you are not able or willing to address difficult or sensitive topics with them. Certainly, that’s not a good message for children to hear from their parents. Some children may also become insulted because it suggests that you think their personal connection with their pet was so meaningless that it doesn’t even warrant acknowledgement. If you try to replace a pet too early, children may reject the new pet. They miss their pet – the one they knew and loved. They don’t just miss having any pet. Allow them to experience and express their grief and help them learn how to cope with the distress – it’s unfortunately not going to be the last time in their lives they experience loss or disappointment. But it may be one of the first times you can help them learn the skills to cope with such loss (thereby making them more resilient when faced with loss in the future) and it helps them see you as someone who is there for them when they really need you most. After all, that’s what makes parents really special in children’s lives.
Q: Our family dog died last week and my child seems very sad and is not talking very much about anything. What can I do to help?
Parents should explain what’s happened and what it means and invite children to ask questions and share their feelings. Model sharing some of your feelings and techniques that you have used to cope (e.g., talking with a family member or friend, remembering happy times you spent with the pet when it was alive, looking at pictures, etc.). But as with all invitations, you need to wait for children to accept – you shouldn’t try to force children to speak before they feel ready. Be physically and emotionally present and periodically inquire how the children are doing and make references to the pet in casual conversation. Children will take the opportunity to talk when they are ready, or they may express their thoughts indirectly through play, writing, or in other ways.
For parents coping with a death in the family, either of a pet or a human family member,
a free guide (available in English, Spanish, Japanese, or and Chinese) is available for parents on how to support a grieving child and includes more discussion on how to explain death to a young children – it can be downloaded here and free printed copies can be ordered as well here.