The secret to… helping children cope with the death of a pet

A much loved animal is a member of the family – how the loss is handled will help children deal with their grief

The death of a pet can be devastating, but it’s hard to think ahead to such a sad moment. Many parents allow small children to have a hamster or guinea pig without realising that just two or three years later they could be plunged into mourning.

If an animal is ill and may die, you must broach the subject, no matter how upsetting. For very young children this could be the first time they have thought about death. With it may come the inevitable realisation that they and their parents will die.

How children cope with a pet’s death often comes down to how the situation is handled. Acknowledge the pain of what you’re all going through: the pet isn’t “just” an animal, but part of the family.

If you have totake an animal to be putdown, prepare your children. Coming home to an empty basket or cage is heartbreaking, and while discussion beforehand about not letting an animal suffer may not help with the grief, it will minimise the shock.

The death of a pet can bring you closer,as children realise their parents arealso sad.Pets are keepers of secrets, good listeners and, often, best friends. Teenagers can suffer badly from the loss of an animal who has been there all, or most of, their lives.

A small ceremony to mark the life of a pet can be very comforting and give everyone the chance to say how they feel. This is a family sorrow, so when the time feels right, decide together whether or not a new pet is a good idea.

By Joan McFadden, with input from clinical psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew, author of The Supermum Myth