Sunday, August 26, 2012

How To Explain the Loss of a Pet to Your Child

This is a hard topic for anyone..death...especially for kids.  We have a chinchilla.  Let me rephrase that...we had a chinchilla.  Unfortunately, our chinchilla, Nugget, passed away.  She was a great little pet and Mason just loved to help change her cage, feed her and help give her dust to bathe in.  So, now I wondered, how do I address this with Mason.  He is only 3 years old and he thinks she is just sleeping.  But when she is buried and the cage is put away, how do I explain this to him?

Well, it looks like I did it all wrong.  I told Mason she was sleeping.  I told him to say good bye to her before he went to bed and that she wouldn't be here in the morning.  He looked in the cage and said, "Bye Bye, Nugget" and that was that.  He went to bed and my husband buried Nugget the next day.  Well, Mason has only asked for her twice since he said good-bye and I am not even sure that he realizes the cage is gone.

Luckily, I feel like Mason will not suffer all ill effects from my feeble attempt at parenting on the issue of death.  I guess I should have read the articles sooner on how to handle death with a toddler to prevent any damage and misunderstanding. 

The best sites I have come across with dealing with the loss of a pet (or loved one) include:
Whether it is a pet or a loved one, here are some tips from the above listed websites on how to talk to your child on the topic of death so you don't make the same mistakes I made.

Tip 1:  How we handle this event can have a far-reaching impact on our children's understanding of death and dying. At all ages, honesty is the best policy. That means using the words death and dying, and explaining the permanence of death. You do it gently but without confusing what dying actually means.

Tip 2: A child's ability to understand what death means depends on his/her emotional and cognitive development.  Here's a breakdown:

Under 2: A child can feel and respond to a pet's death, based on the reaction of those around him or her. A child picks up the stress felt by family members, no matter what the cause.

2 to 5: The child will miss the animal as a playmate, but not necessarily as a love object. They will see death as a temporary state – something like the way leaves fall off a tree in fall but grow back in the spring. As they perceive the trauma around them, however, they may regress in their behavior (e.g., thumb sucking).

5 to 9: Children begin to perceive death as permanent, but they may indulge in "magical thinking," believing that death can be defied or bargained with. This is also the period when children recognize a correlation between what they think and what happens. For instance, a child may resent taking care of the pet and wish – however briefly – that the pet would die. If the pet then dies, the child is often consumed with guilt. Parents need to reassure children that they did not cause the pet's death.

10 and up: Children generally understand that all living things will eventually die, and that death is total. Understanding and accepting are two different things, however. They may go through the normal stages of grief that grownups do: denial, bargaining, anger, guilt, depression and acceptance.

Tip #3: Depending on the age, the child may regress (sucking their thumb or temper tantrums that they had outgrown).

Tip 4:  The worst course of action is to lie (to say the animal went away) or to use confusing euphemisms, such as the phrase "put to sleep." Children will eventually learn the truth, and lying can breed resentment and destroy trust between parent and child.  It probably won't alleviate the sadness about losing the pet either.  Likewise, euphemisms can cause anxiety or confusion because children take what you say literally. "If you say a pet is put to sleep, the child may suffer sleep anxiety.

Tip 5: Be available to let your child discuss his/her feelings about what happened.  Children often become intensely curious about death and what happens to the body. They may ask for details that you may find uncomfortable to explain. These are questions you should answer in a straightforward, gentle and careful manner.

Tip 6: Show your own feelings. This tells the child that the pet was special and that they are not grieving alone. You can also encourage your child to open up, which can help the healing process.  Grieving is an important part of healing, for both children and adults. Don't frighten your child with excessive grief, but don't make the subject off-limits, either. 

We all know our children best.  Use these tips along with what works for your family in helping to deal with loss.

Chasing Tiny Feet

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