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How to Talk to Your Child When a Pet Dies

This weekend we’re grieving the loss of a much-loved pet. We adopted Archie from the cats’ home earlier this year as a kitten. When he died yesterday he wasn’t yet a year old, but had endeared himself to us and to our neighbours (who called him George).

What we could never have known until yesterday was that he had also endeared himself to total strangers. It was strangers who told us that Archie had died. They not only recognised him, bleeding and broken on the side of the road, they knew he came from our house.

When there was a knock on the door yesterday, the kids did what kids do. They rushed to join me at the door to see who it was. So when the lady I now know to be Liz said she feared our cat had been hit by a car, the kids heard. It was unavoidable.

My youngest held onto hope. “It might not be Archie”, he said. Then he thought for a minute. “But what if it is?” And then his tears fell, heavy and loud. My oldest was more practical. “She said it had a black collar, like Archie’s. I think it is Archie.” And he sat quietly for a while.

Here’s what I didn’t do:

  • I didn’t dismiss either reaction
  • I didn’t make promises I couldn’t keep (like saying “it’s probably not Archie”)
  • I didn’t put my fear and hurt ahead of my children’s grief
  • I didn’t avoid talking about feelings
  • I didn’t avoid talking about what we might find and what we would do next
  • I didn’t under-estimate my children’s love for Archie or their ability to cope with difficult things

I sat with my youngest son and said “It’s okay to be sad, even if it’s not Archie it’s still a very sad thing. But especially if it is Archie it will be very sad for us to say goodbye.” I also kept checking in on my older son, who I knew was processing the news in less visible ways.

My husband was away for work. I had to deal with finding and burying Archie without his help, as hard as that would be for me, while also supporting my children. My natural instinct was to protect my children, of course it was, and I didn’t want them seeing what would probably be an awful sight. But they were adamant they wanted to come with me to find Archie.

We agreed it wouldn’t be nice for them to see what Archie looked like, so the kids would stay behind me as we searched. We got a basket and an old towel that I would wrap him in, so the kids wouldn’t have to see him as we brought him home. Then we looked around the garden for a beautiful spot to bury him.

We had a plan.

We would look for Archie. We would bring him home. We would bury him. We would go to the nursery to buy some beautiful flowering plants to mark his grave.

We had a project. It would be tough, but we could do it.

Here’s what I know as a parent and as a psychologist:

  • Kids can smell bullshit a mile away
  • Kids will create an imagined scenario ten times worse than reality if we don’t give them the age-appropriate facts that they need
  • Kids need to process grief just like adults do

The search

We set off on foot. I had an idea where Archie was, and I kept us on the opposite side of the road from that spot so I could search from a distance. But we didn’t find him. Then another stranger helped us out. A construction worker was parked by the side of the road. I chatted with him briefly and he told me he’d seen a cat by the side of the road around the bend. We went back home, got the car and continued the search.

Poor Archie. It really was as awful as I feared. But thankfully the children didn’t see any of that from the safety of the backseat.

I confirmed with my youngest that it was indeed Archie. He cried all the way home, and even harder once we got out of the car and placed Archie’s basket in the spot where we would later bury him. I knew the neighbours would hear, and in hearing would know their fears too were confirmed.

What helped my boys?

  • Listening with intent: My youngest felt safe because I listened to his fears. He was afraid of having it confirmed that it was indeed Archie. So I made sure I went to him first (rather than talking from the front seat of the car) and told him face-to-face that it was Archie. I held his hand and let him cry without hurrying him. I reassured him that he wouldn’t see anything, and that Archie would remain warmly wrapped up when we buried him.
  • Respect and control: My youngest asked us not to say Archie’s name in front of him, asking that we only use his nickname “Parchie”. This allowed him a little control over how he processed his own grief, so we complied.
  • Permission to talk: My oldest needed to talk about it later. He needed to say Archie’s name regularly to help him process what had happened. I encouraged him to talk to me, but to be careful around his younger brother.
  • A talisman: While we were shopping for flowers, I also bought each of the boys an inexpensive friendship bracelet to wear as a reminder of Archie. I didn’t know if it would help, it was an instinctive purchase, but they leapt at the opportunity to wear them straight away.

My top tips for talking to kids about the death of a pet:

  • Choose gentle, age-appropriate honesty and kindness. Always. Age-appropriateness refers to the language you use, not using the child’s age as a reason for keeping them in the dark. Archie was hit by a car and he died. He didn’t go missing. He didn’t go to sleep. He was hit by a car and he died. You can couch this brutality in gentle terms (“It’s awful that Archie got run over, and it’s so sad that he has died”), but the facts remain the same. Euphemisms can create confusion and leave room for misinterpretation (e.g., kids becoming scared to “go to sleep” in case they die too).
  • Respect your child’s need to process and grieve. Let them talk if they need to, give them time if they’re not ready to talk. Let them know that you’re sad too, and that it’s okay to be sad. Let them know they can come to you. It may even be weeks or months later that they feel the urge to talk.
  • Respect your child’s need for inclusion and control. Involve the children in decisions around how to honour the pet they are grieving. Let them have some control (e.g., where to bury their pet, what plants to buy, what words to use, etc).
  • Allow questions. Part of processing grief includes needing facts. Your child might have lots of questions, or none. Your child might create theories about what happened. Answer as openly as you can, but don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know.

We chose an abundant selection of flowering plants to put around Archie’s grave. It will become a beautifully colourful part of our garden, just as Archie was a beautifully colourful part of our lives. Memories are so precious and should be nurtured, just as these plants will be.

Rest in peace beautiful Archie. x

How to Talk to Your Child When a Pet Dies


Tess Crawley

Dr Tess Crawley is an Australian clinical and forensic psychologist, based in Hobart, Tasmania. She completed a PhD in 2004, researching psychopathy in young women and is a former lecturer / clinic director at the University of Tasmania. Tess has worked in the Tasmanian and Queensland prison systems, among a variety of other clinical roles, before opening her solo private practice in 2001. Tess launched her group practice in 2009, Dr Tess Crawley & Associates. Tess has a special interest in perinatal mental health and rural mental health, and spends much of her professional time mentoring other psychologists, both those new to the profession and mental health leaders. She provides online mentoring programs for those professionals further afield. Tess is a busy mum to two boys, a mad Star Wars fan, and loves ice cream, coffee, and good red wine (not necessary all at the same time). The Stigma Rebellion blog is named after one of Tess' online communities, and continues her work towards increasing dialogue and reducing stigma around mental health issues.


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APA Reference
Crawley, T. (2018). How to Talk to Your Child When a Pet Dies. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 15, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/stigma-rebellion/2018/10/how-to-talk-to-your-child-when-a-pet-dies/

 

Last updated: 26 Oct 2018
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