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The death of a beloved pet is one of life’s traumas no matter how old you are. When you are a child still learning to deal with sorrow it can be devastating.
My husband was a veterinarian who was often asked by clients or friends whether or not to get a pet. He listed the pros and cons and always ended his spiel with the reminder that the life span of a human and the life span of a dog or cat are such that getting a pet means you are likely signing on to the pain of losing that pet. Do the math.
The death of a pet or coming across the body of a wild creature like a dead rabbit or bird is often the child’s first exposure to the concept of death. This is a teachable moment so parents should be prepared to answer any and all questions.
A child between about two and four can be told that death means the person or animal has stopped breathing. “This means their body isn’t working any more and there is nothing we can do. Usually this happens when people or animals are very old like our dog Lady was”.
You can go on to explain that Lady’s body was worn out because she was so old. “Now she is dead and won’t come back” “Where did she go?” I told my young children that dead pets went to doggie or kitty heaven. Little pets, and some other small creatures like dead baby birds, were buried in the back yard with the entire family participating in a proper and solemn funeral.
Big dogs were disposed of. Nowadays when a pet dies the veterinarian offers cremation as an option. Rendering a body into ashes may be too difficult a concept for a very young child so I would leave this part out although older children can participate in the scatter-the-ashes ceremony.
Generally when a pet, even a beloved one, dies preschool children merely want to know what happened and they get over it rather quickly, although they continue to mention it (“It’s sad Lady had to die” or “I miss my doggie.”) But the death may bring up other questions like. “Will you die, Mommy?” “Everybody dies but not until I am old so I will be here to take care of you.” “Will I die?” “Yes, but not until you are very old.”
Let your child’s questions or comments guide you but the rule is truth with compassion and with an understanding of the child’s developmental stage.
Saying goodbye to a dying dog is OK. It’s healthy for the family to cry and grieve together. Many pets today are taken to the veterinarian for euthanasia after all remedies have been exhausted and the animal is either in pain or no longer has the ability to live a quality dog life. A preschooler does not belong there but if a preteen or teen insists and you can be there to provide support I might agree. However think it through, you know your child better than anyone else. Some adults find it too distressing to watch while others want to hold the dog.
As for seeing Lady’s body that depends on the condition of the dog. If the dog gets mangled by a car, I would say no.
Be sure to share YOUR grief: “I am so sad that Lady died, I really miss her.” Cry with your child. Then suggest your child draw a picture or pick flowers for the grave or do some other task that empowers the child to deal with grief.
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