5 Ways Children Can Memorialize a Pet and What to Say about Death
by Wendy Jacobson
Image by Andrew Branch*
To many pet owner, pets are family members. When a pet dies, it's natural to mourn the loss of a dearly loved family member.
For a child, a pet’s death can be confusing. It's often a child’s first encounter with loss and death. Providing a clear, respectful explanation relieves unidentified stress, assists the child in coping and understanding, and strengthens your connection. As caregivers, we can also include the child in memorializing the pet.
The amount of detail given to the child, as well as how to involve the child, will depend on the child’s age. Whether you decide to cremate or bury your pet, or simply have a memorial, your child can participate. In this blog, we offer five ways a child can participate in memorializing a pet, and we discuss how to talk to children of various ages about a pet’s death.
How to Talk to Children About the Death of a Pet
Your child’s age and developmental stage largely indicate what and how much to say. Research provides clues regarding what to expect of a child’s understanding and reaction in relation to death. Webmd.com turns to an expert for the following advice:
Of course, each child is unique, says Abigail McNamee, PhD, EdD, chair of the Department of Early Childhood and Childhood Education at City University of New York. McNamee says parents should consider the following questions: "How many experiences has your child had with death? How have you talked with him or her about death? What's been seen on television?"
It’s unlikely that a toddler younger than two will react. In fact, 2- and 3-year-olds do not have the life experience to understand death. It’s recommended to provide a brief explanation to children of this age. Simply stating that the pet has died and will not be coming back is usually sufficient when said in a respectful and empathetic way. Although they don’t fully understand death, they will understand your emotions. It’s OK to talk with them about being sad that the pet died and is no longer here. Assure them that they did nothing wrong to cause the death.
Children between 4- and 6-years-old might have some understanding, but it’s unlikely they understand the permanence of death. In fact, they might think the pet is asleep. Still, a change in eating, sleeping or playing habits can be expected as a sign of their grief. Look for resources such as children’s books that explain the death of a pet.
Children between 7 and 9 years old understand death is permanent, although not in relation to their own lives. Kids at this age will ask a lot of questions, even some that are morbid. Answer each question honestly and with respect. As with the younger kids, it is important to stress they did nothing to cause the pet’s death.
Children who are 10 and 11 typically grasp that death is a natural part of life. They often react to a pet’s death by mirroring their parents’ response. This loss could also trigger memories of losses in the past. Consider all emotions open to discussion.
An adolescent will react similarly to an adult, although his or her range of expression can go from seemingly uncaring to full-on emotional melt-down. Because adolescents are oftentimes trying to find their own identity and feelings, they may conflict with a parent on how to express their grief. In such an instance, it’s important not to make this a point of conflict.
Regardless of the child’s age, be transparent with them about your feelings in response to the pet’s death. By seeing your tears or other expressions of grief, they will learn what bereavement means, and that it is a natural part of life.
5 Ways Children Can Memorialize a Pet
There are many ways your child can participate. Below are five ideas.
- Create a scrapbook – include photos of your pet and small mementos, complete with a description of your family’s memories. You also can encourage your children to draw pictures of the pet to include in the scrapbook.
- Choose and display a cremation urn – if your pet has been cremated and you are keeping the pet ashes at home, include your children in deciding where the pet urn or pet keepsake will go. Consider choosing a pet cremation keepsake photo frame to store the ashes. Include the child in selecting a photo.
- Scatter ashes – if you plan to scatter the ashes of a cremated pet, be sure to ask the children where they think the ashes should be scattered. Include the child in choosing a scattering urn for ashes such as the Forget-Me-Not pet scattering tube.
- Bury the pet or the pet’s ashes – if you plan to bury the pet, wrap the body in a shroud or place in a casket. Alternately, include the child in choosing a pet burial urn, or a pet cremation box for burying the pet’s ashes. The Bamboo pet urn comes in various sizes. Children are fond of the Sea Turtle Biodegradable cremation urn. Once the pet is buried and depending on the child’s age, consider having the child shovel dirt over the body or the urn.
- Create a living memorial – your child might delight in ideas covered the blog, “Urns that Create Homes for New Life.” You can create a living memorial by planting a tree or a bush near your pet’s favorite spot in the yard. If yours was an indoor pet, place a special potted plant near his or her favorite place in the house.
Lastly, the question often arises, “When is it okay to get another pet?” Experts recommend to give the grieving process time. Don’t act too quickly. When you do, begin by talking about the idea with your child to nurture anticipation around the arrival. Involve your child in the process of choosing a new pet when you feel the time is right.
*Image can be found here: http://bit.ly/2hx2NiH
Wendy Jacobson is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis with her husband, two kids and dog. She helped market her mother’s book, “Hands Off My Hope: Life Lessons on my Journey with Breast Cancer” at the request of her mom, who died two weeks after publishing it in 2008. She also is the editor of Minneapolis Happening, a digital lifestyle magazine about what’s happening in Minneapolis and the surrounding area.