After we got Tipsy and then rehomed this one-pound black and white little guy with one backward leg, my daughter missed him terribly. So when another infant cat was found hot and starving in a parking lot, someone tagged me. The next thing I knew I was picking this helpless little kitten up and then picking my daughter up from preschool.
The second he popped out of the basket, they were attached at the hip. He slept next to her bed. She fed and watered him, and would gently pet him. He was a cuddly baby and quiet, which should have been a sign in retrospect.
We did warn my daughter that the kitten might have an owner or might not be able to get better. But she still wasn’t prepared.
One day after we got home from preschool, we went into her room and the kitten – she called him Cookie – was lying where he usually sleeps, undeniably dead.
I quickly ushered my daughter out of the room. Frankly, it’s not a pretty sight and not how I wanted her to forever picture death. Nor did I want to listen to her try to wake him up for my own sake. I also knew I needed to clean the room immediately. You never know in a situation like this when there is no sign of injury.
Aside from the practicals, I always thought I knew how I would explain this, but my kid couldn’t even grasp the idea of “yesterday” and “next week.” I knew this would only upset her, but not sink in. Using magical language would only confuse her. I’m not a fan of making up lies, especially blending them with religion.
To add to that, she had been going through separation anxiety and just stopped crying about her best friend moving away. This was not a time for productive pain.
So, I consulted the experts: Mr. Rogers, medical parenting resources, and our pastor. They all pretty much offered the same advice.
Things To Do
- Tell the truth and use literal language. “His body stopped working. So he won’t be with us anymore like that.”
- Offer a distraction. It’s okay to not wallow in grief right off the bat, and it doesn’t make you better.
- Show emotion. Crying can let your kid know it is sad and okay to feel sad. It validates their feelings.
- Allow them to show emotion. As hard as it is to watch them cry, it’s necessary.
- Allow them to move on. It’s normal for kids to go from crying to playing to crying again.
- Be prepared to re-explain it. You may need to remind your child(ren) their pet isn’t coming back.
- Allow a funeral or burial if it helps. However, for younger kids, you can skip this and make a memorial with a picture or favorite object, candle, etc.
- Pray together for the pet or talk to them. This can be very therapeutic.
Things Not To Do
- Make up pretty metaphorical/magical stories that they will outgrow, losing comfort.
- Use indirect language that may confuse or frighten. For example, you don’t want to say things like, “They’re watching from the sky,” or the pet has “moved on,” or “They got sick.”
- Shame them for being sad/Shame them for being happy.
- Show them the body/make them dig the grave. This is not actually productive and does not “toughen” up kids.
- Talk about blame. Even if your child accidentally caused the death or someone else did, it’s better to focus on the pet.
- Secretly replace the pet with an identical one. It’s tempting but this will not help your child in the long run.
Then there’s the age-old question: to get a new pet or not. Many people will encourage you to wait before getting a new pet out of respect for the pet that passed away and to avoid confusion, skipping grieving.
However, in my experience and many others, especially with small children, a new pet that looks very different from the old pet can help with your child’s feelings. It won’t stop them from feeling the pain or taking time to remember the other pet, but it can ease the pain.
Frankly, falling in love doesn’t lessen the love of an old friend. My grandmothers, who lived to be nearly one hundred, thrived in later generations not just by their adept adaptation, grit, and optimistic resourcefulness, but their willingness to engage with new generations and new friends. They lost so many people and yet always knew there was always someone new to love.
The joy and never-ending quality of love is perhaps another lesson just as valuable as the finality of death. And it may also be the perfect time to teach it.
The main takeaway from this is that it’s okay to let your child lead the grieving process. Their maturity and understanding, everything going on in their life, and how they grieve personally, will all factor into the process. You can even ask them if they would like to have a funeral or a new pet. Or you can just decide based on your child.
You as a parent know your kid best, so don’t worry about what people think of your approach. Just do what is best for your child.