How to talk to your children about the death of a pet...
Posted Jan 03 2012 1:10pm
Our winter break got off to a fabulous start, with the kids and I super excited about all the fun adventures we were going to experience on our days off together.
Unfortunately, our plans came to a screeching halt with the sudden, unexpected death of our beloved cat, Ivy, on Christmas eve morning.
Granted, she was almost 12 years old but she appeared to be a happy and healthy cat. Due to the extremely cold weather, she had been staying indoors mostly for the last few weeks, enjoying being cuddled by the kids and spending time our family.
The evening before she died, the kids kissed her goodnight, as they always did. And when I went to sleep, she was snoring at the edge of the bed, perfectly content.
I heard her leave the room somewhere around 5:45 am and then I heard a loud hissing sound downstairs, as if maybe she found one of the kittens eating her food.
Shortly after, Tim came into the room and said, "Ivy just died."
He wasn't sure exactly what had happened but when he heard her hissing, he turned on the light just in time to see her fall over on the floor. Startled, he attempted to give her CPR but her death was quick and he was unable to do anything. All we could assume was that she must have had a heart attack.
After placing her body on a blanket and putting her near the garage door, we both went back to bed, though neither of us could sleep. We were heartbroken, having just lost a cherished member of our family. And heartsick, knowing we would have to tell the kids, especially on Christmas eve day of all days.
Neither Tim nor I had a clue how to talk to the kids about Ivy's death so I googled the topic but found nothing helpful.
So we just followed our hearts and prayed for guidance, as we informed our young children about the death of their loving pet, who had been part of our family for their entire lives.
Here's what we found was helpful for our family
* Be honest but avoid using phrases like "she went to sleep" or "her body was tired". We didn't want the kids to be afraid to go to sleep and we certainly didn't want them to fear they might die when their bodies feel tired.
What we did tell them was that she had lived a long, happy life and it was her time to go. She had the best life that a cat could have, filled with joy and love.
And now, she was at Rainbow Bridge , with our bunnies who had died years ago and with Grandpa's dog, Winston. She wasn't lonely, sad or scared. Just happy and carefree.
* Let them express their emotions, however they see fit. They may burst into tears immediately, like Cole did, or they may look to one another to see how they should react, which is what the little twins did since they were unsure of how to react.
They may cry off and on over the next few days or they may not. The important thing is to allow them to express their emotions freely and comfort them.
Don't tell them to "get over it already" or to stop being a cry-baby. The only way to get over a loss is to go through the natural grieving process and everyone's way of handling their grief is different.
Respect your child's way of handling his/her grief.
* Give them the choice of seeing the pet one last time (if circumstances allow, of course). We couldn't decide if it would be more harmful for them to see Ivy to say goodbye or if they were better off just remembering her the way they saw her last. Ultimately, we decided to give them the option because we thought it would seem more "real and permanent" to them if they made the choice for themselves.
When they decided they did want to see her one last time, we prepared them by saying, "She won't look the way she did last night when you said goodnight to her. She'll be very still and she won't react to your touch. And her body may not feel warm when you touch her."
* Be prepared for them to talk about death and ask a lot of questions. And I mean, endless questions about heaven, God, death...the list goes on.
Be honest with your kids about what you believe happens to us after death. If you honestly don't know what you believe, it's okay to say "Honey, I don't really know." Just don't lie to them or sugarcoat it but do be gentle and explain it in child-friendly terms.
We told our kids that while Ivy's body was still here with us, her spirit left her body immediately and went to Rainbow Bridge. A person's and animal's spirit is what makes them...well, THEM.
* Be prepared for them to ask for another pet, almost immediately. They may or may not ask for a new pet but if your kids are anything like our kids, they may think going out and getting another pet who looks exactly like the lost pet will make them feel better and/or replace the lost pet.
We told our kids that there was no other animal in the world who would be exactly like Ivy, even if we were to find another cat who looked just like her. No one is replaceable.
And while it was true that getting a new pet might make them feel better, it would only be a temporary feeling. The best way for them to recover from their grief is to feel it and work through it.
* Tell friends and family it's okay to talk about the pet in front of the children. Our family members wanted to avoid talking about Ivy because they didn't want the kids to feel sad, especially on Christmas day.
But we told them we were encouraging the kids to talk openly about her...you can't sweep death under the carpet and we didn't want the kids to feel like they couldn't talk about it whenever they wished to.
* Plant a memorial stone or plaque somewhere in your yard so the kids have a special place to go when they feel sad or want to "visit" the pet. We chose to have Ivy cremated and have her ashes scattered in a field by our vet's office but one of her favorite places in the yard was under our peach tree. It was always a sure bet that that's where we'd find her when she was outdoors...under the peach tree, enjoying the shade and the cool dirt. When spring comes around, we plan to put a plaque under the tree with Ivy's picture on it, in her honor.
Our beloved Ivy, rest in peace January 2000 - December 2011