Life and death
It doesn’t take long for children to form powerful bonds with a pet. They will often consider a pet as part of the family, as important as a sibling. They may talk to the pet and tell it secrets, and also project feelings on the animal, such as fear or loneliness, which they can’t quite admit to having themselves.
A pet can offer a particular comfort to children that the grown-up world can’t always provide. The death of a pet needs special attention. Nancy Gell, director of the Oak Glen Nursery School in Los Angeles, has experienced a number of pet deaths in her classes of 3- to 5-year-old children. While they feel sad about these losses, “children are not really scared by death,” says Gell.
Once, when a favorite goldfish died, she asked the children to choose a way to honor the fish; the children voted to have a parade for it in the room. Another time, when a beloved class guinea pig named Lisa died, Gell laid the animal on a scarf and pointed out the ways in which it appeared different dead than it did alive. The children were allowed to touch it, helped in its burial and later wrote letters to the guinea pig saying what they’d loved about her. “Even a 3-year-old can go through a ritual of grieving,” says Borba.
To keep a child from developing fears about death, the two simple reasons to give for the death of a pet are that it was very old or that it got a disease. “Do not say the pet is going to sleep,” says Borba. From the day the pet arrives in your house to the moment it dies, it will most likely play a huge role in your child’s life and imagination, engaging the instinct for love and care in a way that only an animal can.
Nicole Gregory is a writer and editor in Los Angeles who assists her son Charlie in taking loving care of their household pets: two rabbits and a cat.