How to Tell Your Child That Their Pet has Died

 

Dear Hailey,

I need advice on how to handle a tough situation. My 5 year old daughter has SPD (and I believe anxiety as well) and I have very bad anxiety (that I am working on managing better). We are currently out of town visiting my family (we left early Thursday morning and will be returning Saturday the 8th laaaate at night) and have a pet sitter staying at our house watching our dog, cats and guinea pig. I got a series of calls and messages from the sitter today about our piggie seeming “off” which eventually led up to the news that he had passed away.

I have decided to wait to tell my daughter until we get home because I do not want it to ruin her trip but I am dreading it. I hid in the guest room and cried for over an hour tonight about it all. I don’t know how to handle telling her. Her beta fish died this past fall and it was the most horrible experience. Do you have any suggestions on how to break it to her to be less jarring? She gets sooo emotional (much like me) and I want to make sure I’m doing it the “right” way. Thanks in advance.

Anxious

 

Dear Anxious,

It is important to note that children at the age of 5 have a basic understanding of death. For the most part, they understand that death is permanent, that it is final. However, this can make it more difficult to have a conversation regarding the death of a pet. Every child is unique as far as what they understand at each age. Their own experiences as well as their development affects this.

While it may seem easier now, alternate stories about what happened to her guinea pig could ultimately backfire, for example if you told her it ran away, she may want to look for it, or if it “went to a farm” she may want to visit it at the farm. Some distrust towards you could develop if she discovers the truth at a later date.

If you are religious (or believe in heaven or any form of an afterlife) a great place to start would be to talk to her about your beliefs for what happens after someon dies. It sounds like the guinea pig wasn’t doing very well, so let her know that he is free from pain now.

It is essential that you make sure that you approach this directly, and make sure she knows that it is no one’s fault, especially not hers. The danger in approaching these topics vaguely or using euphemisms like “going to sleep” or “went away” will confuse her and possibly make them think they are to blame. Or worse, they might make her worried about going to sleep, or scared whenever she or someone else goes on a trip.

Allow her to grieve in her own way. If she wants to bury her pet and have a small funeral, that’s fine. If she wants to draw a picture, write a song, that is acceptable too. If she doesn’t want to do any of that, that is just fine as well.

And in regards to anxiety you suspect in your daughter, show her through your own actions how to manage anxiety. Children learn most of what they know from the behavior we model. We can’t teach something we don’t know, so as you learn healthy behaviors that work for you, teach them to your daughter.

Trust your instincts as a mother with how you approach this difficult conversation. You know what she needs, you are familiar with her understanding of the world, and her emotions. I wish you luck!

Hailey

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