Talking about feelings: recognise the emotion, name it and validate it:
‘You’re feeling angry that this is happening-it doesn’t seem fair, does it? I would feel angry too, and I wish things were different’
‘Our heart hurts when we say goodbye. It’s okay to feel very sad‘
‘It sounds like you are feeling worried about how Teddy is going to feel’
‘Mummy is crying because she feels sad. It’s okay to cry when we’re sad’
Talking about euthanasia: use clear, simple and honest language.
‘Teddy is very, very old and his body is starting to wear out and stop working’
‘Teddy has a sickness that we can’t fix, no matter how hard we try to, and his body is going to stop working soon’
‘Mummy and Daddy are very sad because…’
‘When an animal dies, it means that their body stops working and it won’t work again’
Avoid euphemisms like ‘put to sleep’. This can confuse children about what it means to die or make them worried about falling asleep.
Talking about burial:
Kids are naturally curious and it is normal that they ask morbid questions. Your words and tone should convey that you are comfortable talking about body care.
Parents can explain that the pet will be dead when they are buried (not sleeping).
That a marker or headstone can be placed to let people know the pet is buried there.
That they can visit the spot if they would like to.
That soil will cover the container or blanket the pet is placed in, but that grass or flowers will eventually grow on top of it (some environmentally friendly containers for pet burial are now available which can be decorated by the family).
Talking about cremation:
Children may have strong associations with words like ‘fire’ and ‘burning’, and they may bring thoughts of fear and danger. Use honest language with words that will make most sense to your kids. Emphasise that the pet will be dead when cremated and that it is a peaceful process, that there is no pain.
‘After Teddy dies, his body will be taken to a special place where super-hot heat will turn his body in to ashes’.
Be clear about whether the ashes will be returned or not if they are old enough to understand this. If returned, include your child in decisions about what to do with the ashes, that they are very special and that you can do something important with them if the family wishes to, like placing in a pretty container called an urn, or placing somewhere special outdoors.
If your child wishes to see the ashes, be aware that they don’t look like ashes, but rather like crushed seashells.