What Parents Should Do when Their Child's Pet Dies
This is an issue that many parents will face at least once in their lives, and sadly is an issue many handle incorrectly.
The first thing to do is not to do the wrong thing. The wrong thing is lying to the child. Many parents feel protective of their child and want to protect that child from feeling sad. As such they are quick to lie and claim that the pet has either run away, or that they gave it to a farm, or they run out and replace the pet with a similar-looking animal.
Telling the child the pet ran away, or was given away, are wrong for two main reasons (and a whole pile of smaller ones). First off, it does not allow closure; the child is always wondering if the pet is safe and happy. Secondly it sets a terrible example of not caring--after all how could you, the parent, just give away something the child loved, for no apparent reason?
Replacing the pet is equally cruel. At some point the new pet is going to die, or do you expect to keep replacing it and hoping that the child never notices a slight difference in color or behavior?
Allowing a child to experience death through the unfortunate death of a pet is important. Hopefully it will be some time before they experience the death of a human loved one, but this too will come. Dealing with the death of a pet, however hard, does make it easier for a child to understand death when it happens to a friend or family member.
As such it is extremely important to be open and honest with the child about the death of a pet. Allow them to see the animal (if it is not in a state that would distress them further) and say their good-byes. If the death is an expected one, as in an older or sick pet, the child should be prepared ahead of time, and allowed to visit the animal before it is too late. If a parent has made the decision to have an ailing pet euthanized, it is extremely important that they tell the child in age-appropriate language that the pet is in pain and that the vet will be ending its suffering by ending its life. It is easy to use terms like “going to sleep” but this may frighten young children who may then fear the act of falling asleep.
In the case of an unexpected death, the child should also be allowed to see the deceased pet if they wish, unless of course it was horribly mangled as in a traffic accident. Children may want to stroke the pet and talk to it.
Plans should be made about what to do with the body. Some areas offer cremation. Other times burial may be considered and is usually done in people's own backyards, although some cities offer pet cemeteries. Either option offers closure, and the child should be every bit a part of planning the pet's final resting place. Even if the pet is a fish, burial may seem a whole lot nicer to a child than flushing it down the toilet. A special note should be inserted here, that flushing live (dying) fish is illegal in some areas, and even dead fish should not be flushed into septic tanks.
A parent should talk to the child and allow the child to ask any questions, even if the answers are “I don't know”. Also use the understanding of why the pet died as a lesson before getting another pet, especially if the death was preventable--such as a pet who was let out and got hit by a car, or a pet who was not being cared for properly. Another added note here, although a pet may be the child's pet, the adult should bare responsibility for care of the pet, and if they are unwilling to do so no pets should be acquired.
Finally, do not be in a rush to replace the deceased pet. Allow for time to grieve. When picking the next pet it may be better to pick one not too similar to the one lost, or unfair comparisons may be made.