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Help Your Child Cope With Death: Tips From an Expert

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Death. This taboo topic is too often pushed aside and disregarded but what happens when you can no longer avoid the inevitable?

My dog Dice has been a loyal family companion for many years, but we recently discovered that he has a rare form of cancer and we will soon have to put him down. Knowing that his days are numbered, I have been contemplating how I will cope with the loss of my furry friend.  Is there a right way to feel? What should I expect?

Even as an adult, I am struggling with the concept of death and this got me thinking. If death is difficult for adults to understand, how do children even begin to comprehend the enormity of death?

The loss of a pet is often a child’s first experience with death, so just how should a parent approach this tough topic?

Below are a few tips from Beth Patterson, a licensed Psychotherapist and grief counselor in Denver.

  • It is very important to use the word “death” and not euphemisms like “sleeping” or “gone away.”  Many children believe that death only happens at night, and they may be afraid to go to sleep, or even to see their parents sleeping, if that word is used.
  • The death of a pet can provide a wonderful opportunity for a child to begin to understand that death is a part of life.  Of course, it is helpful for the parents to be comfortable with this as well.  A grief counselor can provide guidance in explaining death to a child.
  • Be factual, and also be caring.  This can be a great bonding experience for children and their parents.  It is also important to assure the child that they are safe.
  • Listen, listen, listen to the child’s concerns — some children believe that they somehow caused the death, or it happened because they were “bad.”  Assure them that this is not the case.  They may also fear that the parent is going to die.  Assure them that you love them and that you are not leaving.
  • Telling stories and creating rituals are two of the most healing tools in grief.  Create a memorial service, where all family members and others touched by the loss of the pet can share their memories and feelings.
  • It is important for the child to know that he or she is not alone in grief, and that others share the experience of loss.  Have the child create a collage of pictures and drawings.  Light a candle in memory of the pet.  Writing letters to the pet is another great healing tool.  Encourage the child to write, draw and express his or her feelings.
  • Wait at least a short period [of time before adding a new pet], so that each family member can have time to process his or her loss.  In addition, do not use the word “replace” — it could create a fear in the child that if he or she dies, the parents will “replace” him or her.
  • Listen to the child’s concerns, validate and normalize the child’s responses, and give plenty of assurance that the child is loved and safe.
  • Young children, who do not understand the finality of death, would find the euthanasia process confusing and potentially traumatizing.  Until children have a recognition of the universality and finality of death, i.e., as teens, I would not recommend them participating in the euthanasia process.

Click here to contact Beth Patterson for more information on grief counseling.

Have you had to explain death to a young child? Please share your experience or any tips on how your family coped with the loss.

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Comments
  • comment avatar Jaime Swartzendruber July 31, 2011

    What a difficult topic – great tips. Sorry to hear about Dice’s condition. We have a six-year-old bichon and fear having to part with her someday. We talk with our children about the life expectancy of animals so they might understand, but it’ll be tough – for all of us!

  • comment avatar Amber Johnson July 31, 2011

    Jaime–we grew up with a Bichon and loved our sweet dog.

    Great topic, Nicole. I like the expert’s tips on being honest and straightforward (while being sensitive). We are fortunate we have not yet dealt with death but will bookmark this post for when we do.

  • comment avatar Lori Lavender Luz July 31, 2011

    Having just helped my children through this and come out as well as can be expected, I find Beth’s advice very good.

  • comment avatar Lisa July 31, 2011

    Great advice for a difficult situation. If we help our kids understand death as a part of life it doesn’t seem so scary for them.

  • comment avatar SamIam7 August 7, 2011

    Very well written Nicole. Enjoy the time you have with Dice and keep spoiling him with those hot dogs!!

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