What to do when a pet dies
To a child, a pet is more than a family animal. He is family - and saying goodbye to him is hard.

Saying goodbye to a beloved family pet, and breaking the news to your little one, can be a heartbreaking and agonising experience for everyone involved. Because whether it be a budgie, a goldfish, a snake or a dog, “Most children just love animals and are very close to their pets,” says Jodi Lord, a Cape Town-based registered counsellor specialising in play therapy.

To complicate matters further, children who are three and under often aren’t properly able to grasp the concept of death, and they usually don’t have the skills to cope with it as it often hasn’t happened to them before.

“This is why it’s so important that you help your children to deal with death tentatively the first time it happens and get it right,” says Jodi. “Because they are going to remember the coping mechanisms you equip them with and use them the next time they suffer a loss. Whether it be a pet or a family member, they go through the same emotional process and it’s a good way to equip them for future loss.”

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Getting it right

The hardest, but easiest way to get it right, is to tell the truth. With toddlers, “You don’t need to go into the gory details of what happened if their dog was run over, but if it passed away from old age, you need to tell it how it is and be age appropriate,” urges Jodi.

What’s more, by trying to cover it up – let’s be honest, how many of us have replaced a goldfish before little Johnny notices that it’s floating at the top of the tank – or brush it under the carpet, you aren’t teaching your child how to grieve in a healthy manner.

“Children need to go through Elizabeth Kübler- Ross’s six classic stages of grief (shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and testing) in their own way before they can get to the seventh one, which is acceptance, as a life lesson,” adds Jodi.

“Of course toddlers don’t quite get death or process their grief in the same way as adults do, and probably wouldn’t go through the bargaining stage. But they still feel attachment and love at that age, and would feel the pain of losing a pet.

Remember, toddlers are very sensory and can feel, touch and smell their pet and would most certainly notice its absence in their life, sometimes getting a hollow feeling inside, like something’s missing.”

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The truth hurts

It’s so tricky though, because once you’ve told your child that his pet is dead, you then need to explain what that actually means. And explaining what death is can be quite a daunting task when you’re dealing with a little person.

“Again, you have to just tell the truth. Give them the basic facts. Tell your child that his pet doesn’t breathe anymore, that he’s never going to see it again and that it’s never coming back,” stresses Jodi.

Even if you don’t believe in “doggy heaven”, it might be a good idea to tell your child that his pet has gone to heaven. It really does depend on your spirituality and beliefs. “While a toddler won’t grasp concepts such as the afterlife, children need closure, and a happy ending.

Let them believe in doggy heaven. It’s a nice way for them to put things at rest, knowing that their beloved pet is in a good place. And it helps with the healing process too,” Jodi explains.

She adds that while it is a personal decision, it’s better not to tell your toddler that his pet has come back as a something else – for example, a butterfly or dragonfly. “It’s false hope,” she cautions, “and your child will forever be searching for his long lost pet in the form of something else.

I would suggest a small ceremony – much like a funeral – where everyone gets to say something positive about the pet. It’s important, then, to say goodbye to the pet, to accept that the animal is gone forever, and to eventually move on. Yes it’s tough, and it’s sad, but we can’t overshadow the process of grief. Once your child has reached acceptance, then by all means, get a new pet.”

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How they process it

It can be so hard to know what toddlers are going through emotionally, as this stage of their lives has so many challenges as it as. But a grieving toddler would certainly be angry and lash out at you, perhaps throwing more temper tantrums than usual.

He might have a lack of energy, wet his bed (if he was already out of night nappies), have a sadness and longing in his eyes, talk a little bit less, be socially withdrawn, and have lots of thinking questions, such as, “What is heaven?” or “Does going to sleep mean I’m going to die?”

“Always answer your toddler’s questions truthfully, simply and patiently,” says Jodi. Of course, some children might bounce back from the death of a pet right away, barely noticing it.

But others might struggle with the loss for up to three to six months. It would be advisable to seek the help of a play therapist if your child hasn’t quite grasped it by then, or if the death has sparked off other fears, for instance, “Is mom going to die now too?”

“It depends on the child and the attachment,” maintains Jodi, who notes that some children are more animal-obsessed than others. “I once saw a boy who honestly loved his cat with every part of his being and didn’t know how to be without her,” she explains.

“The best thing that you can do for your child, is to let him be. Allow him to be angry (by giving him a newspaper to punch through) or sad, and allow him to absorb his human emotions so that he can fully move onto the next stage,” encourages Jodi.

“Too often, we don’t allow our children to be sad and expect them to just to snap out of it. They don’t have to, and they’re entitled to their feelings. Let them feel them.”

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