posted on April 02 2019
Losing someone close to you is so very difficult and quite often it is hard for parents to explain to children, in the midst of their own emotional upheaval, how do we communicate what happened and where did they go?
Any pet parent will tell you losing a pet bring a huge amount grief and sadness. In our case, we had to make the agonising decision to let one of our dogs cross over to Rainbow Bridge after an amazing 9 years. Our son is nearly four years old and although he is too young to properly know the ins and outs, he quite clearly noticed that our dog Charlie wasn’t around anymore. His friend that greeted him at the door every morning, went on forest hunts with him, played ball and gave cuddles to every day, all of a sudden wasn’t there.
My husband and I did a lot of research into how to explain to a young child how our family had changed and what had happened to our beloved pet. Perhaps naively, we didn’t think it would affect him as much as it would us, but children have such an innocent way of looking at things which we hadn’t foreseen.
On the morning in question, we told our son to give Charlie a big hug and tell him that he loved him because Charlie was going to the vet and might not be able to come home because he was very sick. Of course, this didn’t really sink in. It was just another day to him. It was when he came home from nursery and a number of days after that the questions started coming…when is Charlie coming home? Did the vet fix him? Can we visit him? Charlie will come home because he loves us, won’t he? We told him (whilst choking back the tears) “No, Charlie has gone to heaven because he was very very sick but he is a much happier doggy now because he isn’t in any pain.”
In all honesty, it’s very hard to get the balance right. Do you believe in heaven or the sky or spirits…? We didn’t want to lie to him but we didn’t want him to think that if he doesn’t feel well or gets a cold he’ll be going to heaven too. We also didn’t want him to think there was a chance Charlie might come back like heaven was only down the road, and thankfully he seemed to get it. That was a month ago and it’s heartwarming to still hear him include Charlie when he decides to rhyme off everyone he loves.
My son with Charlie not long before we had to say goodbbye.
Here are some tips we found helpful when going through the process which we would like to share:
Don’t use Euphemisms like “Put to Sleep” or “Went Away”: Those terms can confuse or scare your little one. You don’t want them to be afraid to sleep or leave the house, or worry that you won’t wake up should you catch a nap. Explain gently, and repeatedly if necessary, that their pet died and isn’t coming back.
Say Goodbye: If you’ve made the difficult decision to euthanize your pet, be honest. Consider it a teachable moment for talking about suffering. Then let your little one say their good-byes, and make sure they understand that their pet won’t be coming back home.
Share Your Grief About the Death of a Pet: Learning how to deal with feelings is an important lesson for toddlers, even naming the feelings is part of their development as they grow. Losing Charlie makes us sad, helped our son know what he was feeling. It’s okay to be sad. You can’t have happy without sad. So let them see that you’re sad as well and explain Mummy is crying because I miss Charlie. (After all, teaching your little one about responsibility, compassion and empathy is one of the benefits of having a pet.)
Help Your Child Cope: Like anyone dealing with a loss, kids usually feel a variety of emotions besides sadness after the death of a pet. They might experience loneliness, anger, frustration that the pet couldn’t get better, or guilt about times that they were mean to or didn’t care for the pet as promised. Help kids understand that it’s natural to feel all of those emotions, that it’s OK to not want to talk about them at first, and that you’re there when they are ready to talk.
Don’t get Another Pet Straight Away: Parents often want to ease their child’s hurt by rushing out and buying another pet but be cautious. The last thing you want to do is convey the impression that the pet – a family member – is replaceable. Maybe wait until the child expresses an interest in another pet. Children are very resilient, and they usually learn to accept their pet is gone.
Read and talk together: Here’s an opportunity to help your child come up with coping mechanism that they can apply to any challenge ahead by gently steering a personal and beautiful narrative to hold onto and revisit. For example you can use the metaphor of the Rainbow Bridge, see below, where dogs go to be happy and free and where eventually they will be reunited with the people they love. Or invent a story about where your pooch is and how they are connected to you in life. The more personal and true the stories you tell yourself the more life affirming benefits you’ll pass on.
If you are in the unfortunate position of having to have conversation like this, click here for an insight into what children understand about death at different stages.
Rainbow Bridge is the theme of several works of poetry written in the 1980s and 1990s that speak of an other-worldly place where pets go upon death, eventually to be reunited with their owners. We’ve copied one of the most common poems for you here.
There is a bridge connecting Heaven and Earth.
It is called the Rainbow Bridge because of all its beautiful colours.
Just this side of the Rainbow Bridge there is a land of meadows,
hills and valleys with lush green grass.
When a beloved pet dies, the pet goes to this place.
There is always food and water and warm spring weather.
The old and frail animals are young again.
Those who were sick, hurt or in pain are made whole again.
There is only one thing missing,
they are not with their special person who loved them so much on earth.
So each day they run and play until the day comes
when one suddenly stops playing and looks up!
The nose twitches! The ears are up!
The eyes are staring and this one runs from the group!
You have been seen and when you and your special friend meet,
you take him in your arms and hug him.
He licks and kisses your face again and again –
and you look once more into the eyes of your best friend and trusting
Then you cross the Rainbow Bridge together never again to be apart.