When a family pet dies it can be difficult enough for an adult to cope with, let alone a child. A pet’s passing is usually the first encounter a child has with the subject of death, and it can be very frightening and confusing. Handling the situation properly can make a huge difference on how the child copes with the death of the pet, and how they feel about the subject of death for the rest of their lives. I, personally, have had many pets in my childhood and found their deaths to be especially traumatic and they left a lasting impression on me. How you handle the subject is largely dependent on the age of the child.
Under 2: The child may realise the pet is gone but is more likely to be affected by the actions of those around them. If you are upset the child will pick up on that but they are too young to understand the subject of death and will probably not be affected by the pet being gone.
2 to 5: Between these ages the child will be aware that the pet is gone, and may miss playing with it. They are more likely to see the animals death as temporary, and will not be able to grasp that the pet is “not coming back”. Explaining to the child that the pet has died will probably be necessary, and it is important that you do make death sound frightening but that all pets die, and when they do die they are in a peaceful and happy place.
5 to 9: The child will be more likely to understand that death is permanent, and will be more traumatised by the pets death. They may cry a lot and experience feelings of guilt. It is important that the child understands that all pets die, and that it is not their fault.
10 and above: Children are now able to understand that all things die, but even though they understand death they are likely to experience all the emotions of grief. It may be necessary to take your child to a counsellor if they are particularly affected.
Should I Show My Child The Pet’s Body?
Again this is dependent on age. A child under the age of 5 will only be more traumatised and confused at the sight of a dead body, which means it is better not to let them see it. If the body is distressing for example if it has wounds then it is best not to show it to a child of any age. If the pet looks peaceful then you can give the choice to a child over 7 if they wish to see the body.