My six-year-old son, Oliver, has an almost mystical relationship with animals. We recently got him a fish and, ever since then, I’ve been fretting about how I’ll break it to him when the fish eventually goes belly up. Like most parents, I was imagining different ways of softening the blow when the inevitable comes to pass.
But Esther Goldberg, a psychologist with Vanier Children’s Services in London, Ont., set me straight. She says it’s best to talk to kids about the death of a pet in an open and honest way. “Avoiding the situation won’t help them manage it. Don’t be afraid to use clear words, such as ‘dead,’ since vague explanations (‘Fluffy’s gone to a better place’) may only cause confusion and anxiety. We parents often couch things to protect our children, but we’re actually missing an opportunity. The coping mechanisms you instill now can help them later.”
But how far do you go with it? Do children need to look death in the face? I thought of my friend Laura, whose daughter’s fish died last December when the ground was too hard for a proper burial. It continues to lie in state in her freezer.
Leave them with a happy image, advises Jackie Greenwood, a vet and owner of the Lawrence Veterinary Clinic in Toronto. “Seeing a pet dead makes it harder to remember them alive. Let your kids deal with the loss, but stop short of making it scary.”
And be succinct. “Don’t overtalk it,” says Goldberg. “Even adults don’t like to talk about upsetting subjects at length. If you see your child getting fidgety or wanting to change the subject, it doesn’t mean they don’t care. It just means they get it — at least for now.”
But don’t be surprised if you have to field questions later. “Children process things in bits and pieces,” says Goldberg, “so there’s no way to be fully prepared. Just be ready for potential questions about their, and your, mortality, and be open to the possibility of a broader discussion. Some children benefit most from logic and facts; others will need your emotional support.”
You know your child best, so tailor the discussion accordingly. But be straight with him no matter what — right down to the question of getting a new pet. “When the family has more than one animal at home, getting a second quickly might make sense, since the first may be lonely,” says Goldberg. “Otherwise, it’s healthy to allow some time. You don’t necessarily want to give them the message that living things are easily replaced.”
Instead, acknowledge the loss as a loss, and let children experience an appropriate range of emotions in response. “Kids can handle more than you think,” says Greenwood. “Give them the chance to show it.”