Losing a pet can be a really tough time for children, it is however an incredibly important learning opportunity. For most children, the loss of a pet is their first encounter with death and grief, handling it well can really help for any future bereavements, animal or human.
To start with, I suggest that you are quite open with your children about the situation and don’t try to hide what is going to happen (or already has happened) from them. Spend some time to quietly explain that your pet is not well and will shortly die (or has already). Use this as a chance to talk about death and what it means. Unless you are religious (and your child shares your beliefs) I would not reference talk of a spiritual afterlife. Instead be clear and calm when explaining natural life-cycles and with an emphasis on enjoyment of life and gratitude for the time we spend with those we love.
Next, I would also talk about how the wonderful memories of your pet will live on in your hearts and minds forever. Here I would encourage you to take as many pictures of your pet and your child together as you can and encourage (or print out those you have already taken if the animal has already died) your child to look at them when they’re feeling sad. Selecting a favourite one for a special frame in their bedroom is a lovely idea. It’s also a good idea for your child to draw pictures and write stories about the pet, these will be priceless to refer to in the coming months and the creative process can help them to process grief too.
I would also think about funeral service of sorts and ask your child how they would like to contribute, again discuss this before the death if it’s possible. They may pick a favourite piece of music to play, a certain part of the garden to bury or scatter the ashes in and a certain plant or ornament to decorate the area. Encourage your child to see this funeral as a celebration of the life of their beloved pet. It’s a good opportunity to share funny stories and special memories. Next, I really recommend reading books about the loss of a pet, my favourite one is ‘Goodbye Mog‘, it can provide some really good talking points to discuss with your children.
Finally, be aware that the death of a pet can negatively influence behaviour for several weeks and months. Rather than the stereotypical sadness that many expect to see, it’s quite common for children to get very angry and violent as well as become rude with you after losing a pet. These behaviours all mask the true feelings of sadness and grief and as such should be treated with empathy, just as you would with tears and upset.