It's something every parent dreads having to deal with, but for children the death of a pet often represents the unthinkable. For their young psyches, the death of a pet is often the first real encounter they have with the fragility of life. Parents need to act quickly to make sure their children's confusion and grief aren't distorted or become too large as the child struggles to process such strong emotions.
Putting death in terms the child can understand.
Helping a child understand the concept of death is an extremely delicate matter that should nevertheless be confronted with honesty and candor by parents. Parents should consider the emotional maturity of the child before answering any questions the child has regarding the death and where their pet is now.
For very young children, it may suffice to simply explain the pet "had to go away" or can no longer live with the family. Parents should point out that the absence is not the child's fault or the result of anything the child did or did not do.
Well-intentioned parents sometimes attempt to oversimplify the death, explaining to young children that "God needed the pet" or that "sometimes these things just happen." Neither answer is particularly satisfactory to the child, who may struggle with understanding the ramifications of either idea. Instead, it's better to explain that death is part of life, especially for pets, and that it's all right to feel sad that the pet is no longer with the family.
Dealing with the pet's remains
Pet death can often be especially traumatic, for the child often sees the pet's dead body. Such confrontation can cause profound fear and anxiety, especially if the death is the result of an accident. As much as possible, parents should protect the child from viewing or coming into contact with the dead body. Besides the emotional impact, contact with a dead animal body is not healthy.
As with other kinds of death, a funeral for the pet offers a way for children to find closure. The burial can be held in the family backyard, beneath a tree or near a garden that the child will understand is a resting place of honor.
In situations where the pet was put to sleep at a veterinary clinic, it's best to let the clinic dispose of the body. Parents can then explain to the child that although the pet has died, they remains have been taken care of. They can then hold a memorial service with the child but without the remains.
The unfortunate necessity of "putting to sleep."
Sometimes illness or critical injury necessitates putting a pet down, or "to sleep." If the pet is ailing, veterinarians recommend allowing one last day with the pet's owner, so that the owner can get the sense of closure needed to the grieving process. Parents can thus allow their children the chance to say goodbye to the pet. However, parents can explain that the pet is very sick, and that the vets are going to do what's best for the pet. Though it's a tough lesson, it doesn't have to be an unnecessarily painful one for children that have their parents' assistance