“We had two cats and now we have one.” How to explain loss to your child.
In this week’s show, I’m going to talk about helping children deal with the loss of a pet. Usually, I am happy when something happens in my life that gives me an opportunity to share my experience with you, but this particular experience is a bit melancholy. In fact, I put off talking about it until I felt that I’d dealt with my own grief enough. I’d had two cats for 16 years. Recently, one of them suffered from a brain aneurism and she didn’t make it through the end of the day. It was very sudden and there I was, completely distraught, and dealing with two toddlers who had no idea what was going on. Not only did they have to deal with Mommy being sad, but they also needed to learn about how to cope with an unexpected loss.
Here’s what I learned from this experience. Children can be supportive in a great time of need. It’s OK for them to see me sad and it’s OK for me to explain why I’m sad. It helps them to understand and accept that something sad has happened. I also learned that it’s a very personal choice how you, as a parent, decide to talk about death with your children. How your child reacts will depend on your child’s age, maturity, and understanding of the situation. In my case, my two-year-old son didn’t seem to notice. He hasn’t asked about the cat at all. So, by taking his lead, I didn’t feel the need to explain it to him. I know that he would not have really understood. He was more concerned with my sadness and I let him hug and comfort me all he wanted. This helped both of us.
My 4-year-old daughter was very aware of everything. From the moment I realized something was wrong, my daughter stayed by my side as much as she could. When I told her that I was taking the cat to the doctor, she was saying that she hoped the doctor would “make Dinky all better.” When Dinky didn’t come home, my daughter simply said, “Dinky was sick. We had two cats and now we have one.” Just like that, she’d accepted the loss. It seemed unbelievable to me that she was so unaffected. Over the next few days, however, I did notice her behaving differently. She was more whiney and needy than usual. I realize now that her emotions were affecting her behavior. I think her emotions were affected more by the reflection of my feelings than from the death of the cat. I asked her if she missed Dinky, and she told me that, “Mommy misses Dinky. Mommy is sad.” She didn’t want to talk about the cat. By following her lead, I understood that to her, Mommy’s happiness was the priority.
If you have an older child who will be more aware of the feeling of loss or a child who was close to the pet that has passed, I still think it’s a good idea to let the child take control of his own grieving process. Offer to answer questions and let your child know you are available to talk about it. I don’t recommend forcing the issue. If a child says they’d rather not discuss it, then I’d let him have his space until he’s ready. Of course, if you notice your child withdrawing or behaving inappropriately, you will need to address it. If a child is truly struggling, you may want to talk to a professional.
Finally, if your child does ask what happened, be gentle, but honest. Some experts recommend explaining that when a living thing dies, it means that its body is no longer working. Our cat’s body stopped working so she couldn’t eat or play anymore. You could also read a book with your child such as When Your Pet Dies by Diane Pomerance. Putting a picture of your pet in an area where your child can see it can help your child remember the pet. It’s important to focus on the happy times with your pet as one of the family. Depending on your spiritual beliefs, you may have additional comforting words you can say. I told my daughter that Dinky had gone to Heaven to play with Grandpa and all of his puppies. She seemed to really like this idea. I’m pretty fond of that idea myself.
That’s it for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed the show. Thank you for listening.
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