By Heather Pohlabel
There are several instances I can remember that my children have had their hearts broken by the death of one of their pets. There was "Hamsty", the hamster who died when my son was five years old. I was aware of the passing of this cute little guy by the noise of my son screaming through the house, "Hamsty...come back to me...speak to me!" as he stood there, holding the hamster corpse to his precious little face - kissing it and crying on it. However gross that seemed to me, he did not understand. He was just traumatized that his pet was no longer breathing.
Then there was the beta fish incident, and I am that sure almost anyone who has had a beta has found it floating lifelessly in its little bowl, so you know what I am talking about. However, this beta was super special because it was a birthday gift from my daughter's best friend (a gift for her seventh birthday). She actually gave her two beta fish as her gift. Well, the very next morning, one died, so we ran out and replaced it. The next day after that, the other one died, so we replaced that one. Then they both died. I removed the tank from her room, not daring to tell her that both fish had died. We believe she already suspect that we "switched" fish because she commented on how different they looked than the day before!
When confronted as to what I was doing with the tank, I told my daughter that it needed cleaning - she insisted on looking in it to see her fish. I told her the fish were sleeping. I am such a liar! She said, "fish sleep?". I lied again, "yes, fish sleep". After drawing out the fish deaths well over a week, we decided that we could not lie to her anymore and confuse her, so we told her the truth, and the fact was she pretty much knew that "fish don't sleep like that; everybody knows THAT!"
How my children dealt with the deaths of their pets was typical for their ages. How we reacted was indeed not the best way.
For "Hamsty" we did not give him a proper burial. We simply put him in the trash. I know, it sounds cold hearted and mean, but frankly, we were grossed out by the remains and neither of us wanted to touch it. I remember making our son place the dead animal in a washcloth and covering him up. We waited awhile and snuck him out to the trash and told our son the Hamsty had gone to heaven.
The fish, of course, got flushed.
With the death of our bunny rabbit just this morning, I was reminded of how ill-equipped I was to handle Hamsty and beta fish's deaths when my son says, "are we going to bury her or throw her in the trash?" I felt like I had been smacked right across the face. That was eight years ago! How could he possibly remember? He did. They all do.
This morning, things went a little differently than past pet deaths. When my daughter discovered her bunny dead in its cage and came in crying, I hugged her and explained to her the lifecycle of a rabbit and that it was just her time to go. I told her how lucky we were to have had that bunny for so long, and even though she was adorable, she was still going to die at some point. I apologized in sympathy for the loss of her pet and told her that the bunny was no longer in its body.
This is when my son so wisely suggested the proper burial for the animal. We picked a spot - under the tree in the backyard, and will wait until daddy gets home from work to bury her, and they will cry again, I am sure of it, and we will let them, but we will also give them and guide them through the proper channels of grieving.
If your family experiences the loss of a pet, simply replacing the pet will work for younger children. Our daughter is now too old to do that, and we learned that after age three or four, it is best to just be honest with the child about the pet's death. Tell your child that their pet has died and will not be coming back. They will learn to live without that pet and may request another one, but weigh the decision before making it. Evaluate how well your child responded to the death of this pet. If it was extremely difficult, you will only be setting your child up for future heartbreak.
It would be best to put some time between the death of this pet and bringing a new pet home to live with the family until your child has learned more about death and becomes a little more comfortable with it.
The older a child is, the harder death is to deal with, actually. Older children tend to evaluate animals' lives in terms of humans. The loss of a pet will lead them to exploring their feelings about losing human family members, and this can be devastating, or healthy, depending on how equipped you are to handle these emotional issues.
Honesty is always the best policy. It will help your child mature and deal with real life issues in a real manner, not in denial. The better able you are to cope with the loss of a pet and to explain it to your children, the better they will deal with it.