For most children, pets are the best of friends and a part of the family. Many children have special relationships with their pets, and cats are no exception. A cat can even be a child’s closest confidante, finding comfort within the uncomplicated, unconditional love that only a cat can offer. Sadly, and inevitably, the joy of sharing life with a pet cat will be accompanied by the grief of losing her. Although the loss of a pet is inevitable, there are ways to help your child to cope with it.
The loss of a pet may be a child’s first experience with death. It is natural for parents to want to protect their children from the painful realities of the world – including death – but with care and support, your child can grow through the grief and heal in ways that will better prepare them for the many significant losses that life inevitably brings. The loss of a pet is a valuable opportunity to teach children that death is a part of life, natural, and universal.
How do I talk with my child about death?
In the desire to protect children from the reality of death, it may be tempting to make up a story as to why the pet is no longer present. This is not helpful, however. Stories such as the cat 'ran away' or 'went to live on a farm' may leave your child feeling abandoned or believing that she will return some day. And children will often find out about their cat’s death – sometimes many years later. Honesty is the best policy, in the short and the long term.
To talk with your child about death, it is important to realize that children’s understanding of death is related to their age and stage of development. Children 3 to 5 years of age see death as temporary and potentially reversible. Given that very young children are unable to understand the permanency of death, it is best to describe their pet’s death saying that the pet has stopped moving, does not see or hear anymore, and will not wake up. Be prepared to need to explain this several times, since they will often continue to ask where their pet is and when it will come back. Although children between 5 and 8 better understand the nature and consequences of death, it is not until they are 9 and older that they can fully comprehend the permanence, universality, and finality of death.
"To talk with your child about death, it is important to realize that children’s understanding of death is related to their age and stage of development."
In general, children of all ages need simple, honest information about what death means and what it looks like. Children do not need complicated explanations as much as they need love, comfort, and support. Be honest and use simple, age-appropriate terms. Younger children need to know that bodies stop working when they die (bodies can no longer hear, feel, see, or taste). Older children need to know what condition led the body to stop working and why that condition could not be cured by a veterinarian. It is best to use simple explanations when discussing euthanasia, and avoid jargon (such as 'putting Fluffy to sleep') that could be easily misunderstood.
Be aware that no matter what age, children will ask questions. You may hear, “Why did my cat have to die?” and “Will I ever see my cat again?” Some children will engage with 'magical thinking,' asking, "If I wish hard enough…" or "If I am really good…" "… can I make her come back?" With every question, be honest with your answer. Use simple and easy-to-understand terms, and be patient. Although your child may ask the same questions over and over again, it is through your patience, consistency, and reassurance that they will be able to understand death and work through their grief.
Encourage your child to talk openly about death so that you can understand it from their point of view and can provide information and reassurance as needed. Many parents are surprised with how matter-of-fact children can be about death and dying once they themselves have talked about it in honest and simple terms. There are many books geared toward answering children’s questions about death. Finding an age-appropriate book may be helpful.
"Encourage your child to talk openly about death so that you can understand it from their point of view and can provide information and reassurance as needed."
As you talk with your child, be sure to share your feelings as long as they do not overwhelm you or your child or detract from your ability to be supportive. Being honest about what you feel conveys the message that it is normal to feel sad and will give your child permission to share their feelings as well.
It is important for children to have the opportunity to say goodbye to their special friend. They should always have choices as to how much they wish to be involved with saying goodbye. Older children may choose to be with their cat when the euthanasia is performed, while younger children may choose to say goodbye while their cat is still alive. Other children may choose to view their pet’s body after death has occurred, reassuring themselves that their beloved pet has really died. The opportunity to say goodbye helps children to move through their grief.
If a personal goodbye is not possible, then drawing a goodbye card or writing a goodbye letter to place under a pillow, by the pet’s burial site, or in a memory book, can help with closure.
How might my child grieve?
Grieving is a very personal experience, even for children. Children grieve just as intensely as adults do, but often have different ways of expressing their grief. Children’s response to loss may include tearfulness, sleep disturbance, anxiousness, bedwetting, and impaired concentration at school. These responses are normal and usually temporary. Invite your child to talk about their feelings and reassure them that these feelings are okay. Listen without judgment and support the need to grieve.
As their pet’s death is gradually accepted, the frequency with which children express their grief will subside. However, if grief becomes protracted and your child is not able to maintain their normal routines, then the assistance of your doctor or a qualified mental health professional should be sought.
How can I support my child?
Grieving a pet has to be done in a child's own way. Moving through loss is a process. It cannot be hurried. Although there is no best or right way for children to grieve their pet, there are ways to support your child.
Find comfort in routines and play. All creatures, whether human or animal, find comfort in the daily routines that give our days form and focus. Maintaining the normal daily schedule for meals, bedtime, and play time is an important part of coping with a life-changing loss. Laughter – or taking a break from the sadness – serves as a healing salve for hurting hearts.
Honor your pet. After a pet has died, children may want to bury their pet, make a memorial, or have a ceremony to honor their pet. Alternatively, you could spread your pet’s ashes or plant a tree in your pet’s memory. Looking at pictures and building a scrapbook can also be meaningful ways to honor the relationship you had with your cat.
Make space for remembering. Children need to be given time to remember their pet. Encourage your child to share their favorite stories about their cat and to remember the happiest times. Those memories are part of the natural healing process and can provide great comfort months, and even years, after your cat’s death. Friends and family can help by sharing their stories and special memories too.
Children with less developed verbal skills benefit from having other opportunities to process their grief. Crafting scrap books or memory boxes, or creating a collage of mementos, can provide an outlet for, and give form to, important feelings. Young children can be encouraged to manage their grief through drawings, play, or other activities.
Read with your child. There are a number of well-written children's books on the subject of pet loss. Visit your lending library or purchase a 'gift' book for your child, that your child can keep as a keepsake.
Create a support network. It is important to tell others who play a significant role in your child's life (a favorite relative, teacher, neighbor, or school counselor) about the loss, so that they too can offer support in this difficult time.
Consider a new adoption. Well-intentioned people will often suggest a new adoption to ease the pain. Although there is no 'right' time to adopt, as some children can bond with a new pet while still grieving for the old one, it is vital that children do not get the message that their cat is easily replaceable. Every cat is a special friend and should be honored as such. Allow the time to grieve and heal. Children will learn that loss and the grief that accompanies it is a natural part of life.
Remember, children understand death in relation to their age and developmental stage. Each child will grieve their pet in their own unique way and at their own pace. One child might want to talk about their pet all the time, while another might want to quietly draw pictures. The experience of loss is different for everyone, even children. Sometimes the grief may return months later, long after a child seems ‘over’ it. In all cases, it is only by moving toward the experience of loss, that any of us, children included, can learn to live with it. With care and support, your child can grow through the grief and heal.