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When a Pet Dies, What Do I Tell My Toddler?

It's been weeks since our dog passed — weeks since I told my almost two-year-old granddaughter that our constant companion was no longer at our sides. For many days, I thought about writing helping children with the loss of a pet. But, I kept finding distractions. I wasn’t yet ready.

My heart ached for his unconditional love. My eyes scanned for his shape. My body searched for his warmth. My ears perked at familiar sounds. My memory fooled me as I expected his greeting.

How To Help Yourself When Your Pet Dies?

Take care of yourself.

Be gentle. With tenderness and kindness, give yourself a few days or weeks to calibrate to the loss.

The loss of our dog touched almost every activity and part of the day. I arrived home, expecting him to greet me. I went to my bed expecting him already in a cozy spot. My shopping list did not include his food. It amazed me how often I thought of our dog.

Expect waves.

Loss activates our thoughts, feelings, senses, and experiences of the body. With tenderness, watch the sadness stay, retreat, return, and go. This pattern may become less frequent and less intense with time.

Gut-wrenching sadness filled my awareness during the first morning. I watched the waves. I allowed saddness to be present. I noticed wanting to ignore or distract. About mid-day the darkest of the feelings lifted. The following weeks, I watched as grief rolled in and receded.

When Your Pet Dies, How To Help Your Young Child

Protect infants and toddlers.

While we don’t want to hide emotions from young children, grief is intense and difficult for infants and toddlers to understand. Young children tend to think they cause your emotions.

  • Reassure your child that you are safe and your child is safe and loved.

  • When powerful emotions flood your system, excuse yourself for two-minutes while your child is safe. “Mommy needs to take care of Mommy.”

  • Process your experience or details of the pet’s death when your young child cannot hear you. Even when the child does not understand the words, your child can pick up on the felt experience of the words or timbre of hushed tones.

Name emotions. It's okay if you cry when you tell your child of your pet’s death or talk about your memories of the dog. Your child will likely mirror your emotion and take cues from you. Naming and regulating emotions is part of what young children are learning. Reassure your child it is okay to be sad, and not to be sad.

Say aloud your shared emotional experience for you and your child.

  • "Daddy is sad our dog died. Cassie is sad our dog died."

  • “I loved our dog. I am sad he doesn’t go on walks anymore.”

Be aware of children's processing.

Cause-and-Effect are emerging skills. A young child may believe she causes your sadness and possibly the pet's death. Let your child know adults are responsible to care for children and pets. State the cause simply with clear language.

  • “Our dog’s body was very old and stopped working.”

  • “Our dog didn’t see the car. The car hurt his body and he died.”

Reinforce positive connections.

Talk about all of the ways your child loved your pet. While we might want to protect our child or ourselves from reminders of our sadness, the pet’s items provide a concrete way to talk about the changes.

  • Keep out the bowl or the dog’s bed. “I remember our dog. He liked to sleep in his bed.”

  • Create a memory box of the dog’s dish, collar and favorite toy. Place the box in an easy to access location. Yesterday, our granddaughter took out of the memory box our pet's leash- 8 weeks after his death. She pretended to be a dog. It brought joy into our hearts!

Please write to me and share your experiences.

#parenting #death #petdies #toddler

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