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So, how are you going to do it? Often, the death of a pet is a child’s first exposure to death. And even if it isn’t, much of the time, people are dealing with the loss of an animal that has always been with the child. You know how it works – you had the dog, and then you got pregnant. Your child and your dog grew up together and were fast friends. How can you tell that child that he is never going to see his best friend again?
It’s hard and everyone deals with it differently. All I can hope to do is offer a few suggestions and guidelines to help you with telling your child, so here goes.
This is the first and the most important thing that I can tell you. Do not ever lie to your child about why the dog is gone. “Danny went to live on a farm,” or “Danny ran away” is not going to cut it. You are setting yourself up for “Can we go visit Danny?” or for your child to begin searching for his or her dog. I actually know a parent who offered up the “ran away” scenario, and for years – I am not exaggerating, literally years – the child asked everyone he met if they had seen Danny.
You don’t have to go into great detail, but don’t use vague phrases like, “Danny went to heaven to be with God.” It’s lovely that you have a belief system, but if you say things like that, then your child is going to want to know why God needed Danny, and why, if God is so powerful, he can’t give Danny back. The last thing you want to do is end up in a theological discussion with your child. “Danny got sick, so his body didn’t work right anymore, and he died” is good enough. If your child is old enough to want more information about death, offer it. Most of the time, a child will ask questions that are appropriate for his or her age and level of understanding.
Your child is going to want to know what happened to Danny after he died. Sometimes, just, “I don’t know, but I would like to think that he is somewhere good, but somewhere that we are not allowed to be” is often sufficient. Some children may take comfort in the story of the Rainbow Bridge. They will believe that Danny is in a good place – a place where they can’t go just yet, but someday, they will see Danny again.[wp_ad_camp_1]
Your dog did not “go to sleep.” He died. Don’t tell your children that he went to sleep and didn’t wake up. A child’s natural course of reasoning is going to lead him to believe that he could go to sleep and not wake up. Sleeping and death are two very different things, and your child needs to know this.
Some children appreciate the ritual of saying goodbye to their dog. I am not suggesting that you let them be present for a cremation, or that you allow them to see the body – if you are choosing a burial – I recommend buying a nice Rubbermaid container in the right size, but telling your child that this is now Danny’s private place where no one else should be. They shouldn’t disturb him, but it is okay if they want to say a prayer or a poem over the casket, or place flowers on it.
This is a tough call – do you rush right out and get a new puppy, or wait? The answer is every bit as individualistic as you are, and as your dog was. I have known people who have grieved for years for a lost dog, and only gotten another one when it was practically forced upon them. I also know people who have gone out the day after a beloved dog’s death and gotten a puppy, simply because they had to focus on something other than the grief, and taking care of a new dog provided exactly the right sort of distraction.
I don’t think there’s a right way or a wrong way. When kids are involved, though, you should consider their feelings. A lot of the time, kids are a good deal smarter than we give them credit for. If they want time to grieve for the lost dog, let them have that time and do your best to help them over the rough spots by answering their questions and allowing them to express their feelings. On the other hand, if they want a new puppy right away, be thankful that their first experience with a dog was so good that they want to repeat it as soon as possible.