My parents never talked to me about death. People died and it was as though they disappeared. It was the last great taboo. In fact, my beloved grandfather died and I wasn’t told until after the funeral; and therefore did not have the chance to say goodbye and formally grieve. By not including me in the grieving process, death became mystifying, frightening, and made me anxious. I knew my parents were devastated, I was devastated, and yet none of us talked about our sadness. Thankfully, times have changed – it is now more acceptable (and emotionally healthier) to include our children in the grieving process. Facing death is a fact of life that no one can escape.
For children, their first experience with death is often the loss of a beloved pet. What are the words to use to comfort a grieving child when a beloved pet passes on? Taking into consideration your child’s age and stage of development, encourage your child to ask you questions. The inevitable will be, “Where does he go? What happens? Will I ever see him again?” The practical adult urge may be to go out and replace the animal immediately to distract your child from their grief. But in reality, this event is the way your child will learn to accept and process the reality of death.
Together, create a memory box of remembrances that your child has of the pet. Have your child write a letter talking about what they will miss and emphasize all the wonderful experiences they had with the pet. If it’s possible, you can bury your pet outside and allow your child to direct the funeral. Creating these types of rituals allows your child to find a “place for death” in their lives.
Your child will probably ask you a lot of question during this process. Inevitably, there will be a leap to fears and anxieties about your own mortality. This is the time when reassurance takes the place of explanation, where we include children in grief into the conversation. “I will be around for a very, very long time.” Your child will be satisfied with your words and a big hug. This honest and transparent approach will welcome your child into your world instead of excluding them to deal with grief alone.