Children can be helped to understand that life eventually comes to an end. When the family cat dies, tell them the truth, be there for them, and acknowledge their sadness. This can actually be a good opportunity to help a child learn how to properly express his or her feelings.
When a pet dies, it may be more difficult for a child to deal with feelings of grief if he's not told the truth. Avoid using the term "put to sleep" when discussing euthanasia of a cat with a young child, because he could misinterpret this and develop a fear of bedtime.
Children under the age of four really have no concept of what death means. A child of this age should simply be comforted and reassured that the pet's failure to return has nothing to do with the child.
Children from the age of four to seven do have a rudimentary understanding of death, at least in the finality of not seeing the cat again. They are even capable of feeling some guilt for the cat's death, especially if the cat and the child didn't get along. If your child feels in any way responsible reassure him or her that the cat's death had nothing to do with anyone in the family; that the cat had simply lived a good, long life and was ready to die.
Some children in this age group can also interpret death as an illness that can be caught, like a cold. If this happens, they could begin to fear that they might die soon. These children should be comforted and reassured that this is impossible. Short talks with children this age can help relieve them of their fears and allow them to release any emotions that might be bubbling just beneath the surface.
Seven- to ten-year-old children understand the finality of death. Some children in this age group, rather than fearing for their own mortality, begin to worry about the health and safety of their parents, siblings, or friends. After all, if the beloved family cat can die, why not a family member or some other beloved person? If these types of fears go unresolved, further problems can result, including antisocial behavior or problems at school. These children must be talked to and comforted, just as you would with younger children. If necessary, the parent of a grieving child of this age can attend one or more grief and loss seminars with the child. When the time comes to choose a new cat, be sure to involve the child in the process, as it will help empower him or her and give a sense of new hope.
Children over ten years of age usually show the same reactions to a pet's death that adults do. They are more likely to mask their real feelings, however, in order to avoid the powerful emotions at play. If they're not allowed to express their grief, these children can suffer tremendously. Talk to these children, and, if necessary, read a book about pet loss together with them. As with the younger kids, involve these children in the process of choosing a new pet when the time comes and all are ready for the new commitment.
If your child becomes increasingly sullen and withdrawn after the death of the family cat, be sure to speak to your family pediatrician who can put you in touch with a pediatric grief counselor.
Excerpted from The K.I.S.S. Guide to Cat Care by Steve Duno
Copyright 2001 by Steve Duno.
Excerpted by permission of Dorling Kindersley Publishing Inc.
All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.