Helping children when a pet dies is not only important for their hearts, but for yours too.
Our 12-year-old golden retriever is dying. We thought she was about two years ago, when we ended up taking her leg off because we thought it was cancer. It wasn't, and she's lived nearly two more years a happy and full life, albeit three-legged. Recently, though, we learned she has lymphoma, and most likely only a short time left with us.
This knowledge is leaving our hearts broken, and we are working to make the transition over the Rainbow Bridge easier for my sweet dog, my husband and me, and especially for our little boy, who has never really experienced the death of a loved one.
Related: 5 Things That Pets Bring To Kids' Lives
The easiest way to help prepare and guide their hearts is to just love them. Let them cry, let them share their feelings, even if unexpected. My son is very literal - often very unemotional and not super affectionate. When we told him our Dixie had cancer, he quickly rationed back with, "Well, that's why we got Lilly when we did. She will help us heal our hearts."
My husband and I were a little thrown; we expected the same devastation and heartache we felt, but that's just not Luke. Some kids are very matter-of-fact and circle-of-life about it, while others are so sensitive and emotional, it weighs on their hearts heavy for a good while. Whatever grief style your child exhibits, be sure to let them know their feelings are valid, and it's ok and normal for them to feel that way.
Too often, people will say, "It was just a...." when it comes to pets. Those of us who count our pets as family know differently, and allow your child to honor her love for her pet with her grief (however she needs to do it).
There are also a lot of really great books for helping children deal with the pain and heartache of losing their pet. Some of my favorites are: The Rainbow Bridge Book: A Visit To Pet's Paradise, Dog Heaven, I'll Always Love You, The Goodbye Book, Cat Heaven and Badger's Parting Gifts. These books help explain pet death in a way that children can relate to and understand, and often keep concepts simple enough for answers but not so deep that your child is more upset.
I have to warn you, though, most of these books will also make mamas and daddies tear up too. Read through them first, but realize that your child seeing you cry and nurse your grief is the gift of security in their feelings as well. Your pet was loved; honoring him or her with tears is something your children should feel is a gift on their part, if they want to shed them, and seeing you cry may them feel better about their own heartache.
Also, talk to your children about how they would like to share their grief. Some may want a funeral, or some sort of ceremony for last goodbyes. Some may want to make donations in their pet's name and community shelters or other pet resource alternatives are great ideas. Some may want to do a commemorative garden or plant or stone, and that's something your family can do together.
Allow them to express their grief how their hearts need to, in picture or words or song or whatever brings them comfort, as it's a really sad time for them and many of these emotions they're feeling are most likely new.
Related: Pets vs Siblings: Which Do Kids Prefer?
Some families even choose to speak to counselors about the feelings their children have, and this is perfectly okay as well. Pets are family members and littles have big, intense feelings when it comes to family members. A counselor can help them navigate through these feelings (and maybe help you too) so they don't feel so overwhelmed.
However you help your child through the death of a pet, know that their feelings aren't silly because it's just a fish/hamster/lizard/cat/whatever. To your child, and most likely to you, your pet was a special part of the family who will be greatly missed.