Recently, Gordon lost his two favorite hens, Rita and Polly. Rita, especially, was such a sweet hen, always willing to let Gordon pick her up and always ready for a new adventure. Losing her was like losing a favorite dog—or a best friend.
Gordon immediately started asking, “Where’s Rita and Polly?” I could tell he was sad and that he was grieving the unexplainable loss of his animal friends.
So how did we handle it? Adults struggle with the concept of death, so what were we supposed to tell our child?
First, let me remind you that Gordon is three years old, and he’s on the Autism Spectrum. He’s very bright but quite literal in his understanding. So I decided to be straight forward, to respect him by telling him the truth as I understand it:
“Rita and Polly went to live with Jesus. They’re very happy there. And one day, a long long time from now, we’ll get to see them again.”
Gordon accepted this change but I could tell he was still sad. So I acknowledged his feelings:
“I miss Rita and Polly, too. They were the best chickens ever! I’m sure they miss you. But remember, they’re happy with Jesus now.”
Gordon continued to ask for Rita and Polly over the next couple weeks, and I reiterated this same message over and over again. I even bought a chicken stuffie for him to hug, and he really likes it. He named her Polly.
For awhile, Gordon told everyone about Rita and Polly living in Heaven. I could tell he was processing this information and making it his own. He doesn’t mention the hens much anymore, but when I see him looking curiously at the empty chicken coop, I tell him the same thing again, being sure to acknowledge his feelings (or what I think he’s feeling, anyway).
Parenting must be learned through on-the-job training, and in this instance I think we did the right thing. Gordon accepted what happened and learned to be happy for Rita and Polly who are now happy pecking in the open fields of Heaven. I have to accept the fact that there will be more losses in Gordon’s life, but being direct has proven to be the best approach for him.
Here are seven pointers to help you when your little one experiences the loss of a pet:
1) Skip the fairy tales.
Every time I hear someone say their pet “crossed the rainbow bridge,” I cringe. Who came up with this pseudo religion? There is no reason to make up stories to make our kids feel better about losing a pet—the truth is so much better! And here’s the truth: Jesus created all the animals, and He wants them to be with Him in Heaven. (Check out my post, Do Pets Go to Heaven?.) Eventually, when we get to Heaven, we’ll get to see our animal friends once again.
2) Start with Jesus.
Gordon already had a vague understanding of who Jesus was long before we lost the hens. He knows that we pray in Jesus’ name and that Jesus loves him. I’ve also taught him that Jesus is the Son of God, that He made everything on Earth (including us), and that He lives in Heaven.
When I told Gordon that Rita and Polly went to Heaven to be with Jesus—the One who loves them and made them—it all made sense to him. It was a consistent story, which is important to children who are just making sense of their world.
(Download my free eBook for ten ways to share your faith daily with your child.)
3) Respect your child by telling the truth in an age-appropriate way.
When I was little, my parents told me my cat ran away. Somehow, I figured out they were lying to me. Eventually, they had to concede that she was hit by a car.
Kids are super-smart. Tell them the truth and grieve with them. Otherwise, they’ll figure it out, grieve on their own, and lose trust in you.
4) Consider skipping the D word.
I’ve never told Gordon that the hens died. “Die” just isn’t a word in his vocabulary, and I don’t think it needs to be at this time. I’m not doubting his ability to understand it; I just don’t want him focusing on the idea that they’re no longer alive. Instead, as Christians, we believe that life is eternal and ordained by God. That’s the seed I want to plant.
Now, if your kid saw his pet die, then you’re going to have to talk about death. My suggestion is to explain that his pet had a soul (or mind) like we do and that it lives on in Heaven even though his body has died.
5) Acknowledge your kid’s feelings.
Is your ten-year-old inconsolable over losing…a pet worm? Or a grasshopper? Sometimes it’s hard for us parents to empathize with the seemingly irrational emotions of little kids.
But emotions are what they are. Even if you don’t understand why your little one is so upset, acknowledge his feelings. Say something good about the pet. Commiserate over the good times. Do your best to enter your child’s world and his emotions so he feels like you’re there with him.
6) Be proactive against anxiety.
Little kids get worked up over the smallest of things—or at least what seems small to us. That’s why, when I talk about us going to Heaven, I say it won’t be for a long, long time. I don’t want Gordon to start worrying about us all going to Heaven tomorrow.
You know what triggers your kid. Avoid those triggers as much as you can.
7) Work it out.
I bought Gordon a stuffed hen because I knew he missed holding Rita. Maybe your little one would feel better drawing a picture, visiting a farm, writing a poem, or putting together a scrapbook. If your child is old enough, ask him for ideas on ways he can memorialize his pet and make himself feel better.
You may also want to check out Fly High by friend Michelle Medlock Adams and Janet K. Johnson. This beautiful book tackles the topic of grief for kids through the story of a little bird that dies but leaves behind baby birds that eventually fly high on their own.
I know all of this may seem like a lot of effort, but I remember from my own childhood how important it is to handle grief (and any hard time) with compassion and family solidarity. And I fully believe the way we help our children deal with the loss of pets will affect how they deal with the loss of family and friends down the road.
Do you have any tips you can share to help kids grieve the loss of pets?
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