What to say to children
Everyone’s situation is unique, your beliefs about death and about what happens after death will guide you in what you do and say.
It is important to speak plainly to children; use the correct grounded terms -dying, death, and dead. Using as much care and tact is important but ‘softening the blow’ by using euphemisms like ‘lost’, gone, gone to sleep actually create more confusion for children (and adults alike!) and hinder their ability to process and integrate the end of their pets life into the continuation of theirs. It robs them of an opportunity for valuable learning.
Speaking clearly and plainly about what happened – the circumstances and results gives children a narrative that can link their pets’ disappearance from their lives. Whatever your choices, the most important thing to remember is that you want to be able to provide a narrative and sense of cohesion about the transition from living to dead.
For example, “Our cat is not here anymore because she was hit by a car and died, we buried her in our backyard, picked flowers to put on the grave’ or
“Our dog was old and she died one day, we called the vet and they came and took her body away and we had a ceremony in the backyard and put a photo of her on our kitchen table’
These narrative connections are the foundations upon which all other deaths and losses are built. With this in mind, how we respond to the deaths of our pets and the level of language, involvement and understanding we can bring to this, offers invaluable lifelong supports for all members of the family, especially our children. Let them see your expression of feelings- they will take their cues from parents and siblings as to how to express their feelings. Model it for them. Provide plenty of support and let key people know whilst keeping familiar routines.
Acknowledge certain times of the day- walking, feeding, morning cuddles where the absence of the pet may be felt more keenly. Have tasks or a candle to light; take a moment to pause at these times.
When you miss your pet, say so, if you feel there is sadness, in a simple way, name it.
Keep giving simple signals that the loss is real. Donna Schuurman (2002) had the following to say about children and grief: “Sorrow needs expression, but it’s not always with words. The more tools and permission we provide for children and adolescents, the more likely they will find their own forms of expression rather than the narrow options we might offer. Give sorrow words, yes, but also paint and glue, and hammers and nails, and long walks and quiet, and music and play, and all other possible forms of expression including silence.”
Author Victoria Spence