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Deal with Death Honestly

I just got off the phone with a friend who is distraught over the death of the family pet. Adding to her distress is the thought of having to tell the children that their beloved dog is not going to come home from the vet. "What should I say to them?" she asked.

This is a tough one but it is a common situation and many of us have faced it, probably more than once. Children form strong attachments to their pets, who quite often have been in their life for a long time. Without a doubt the child has not contemplated that this special friend may not be around forever. When the pet dies, it is usually the child's first introduction to death.

The age of the child will have a bearing on her overall understanding but what all children and youth will have in common with each other and with you is their sadness and sense of loss. Don't be afraid to share your own feelings. Encourage your child to talk about how he is feeling.

We always need to be aware that our state of mind and how we present ourselves when we communicate with our children becomes part of the message. If we are approaching the task of giving this sad news with the thought "Oh my, oh my, I am breaking her little heart" it is quite likely that the child will get the message that this is indeed a heart-breaking situation.

Be calm, be direct and, above all, be honest. Answer all questions to the best of your ability and be prepared to say "I don't know the answer" when that is the case.

Use concrete examples about what the loss will mean. "Fluff won't be here when you return home from school each day." This helps the child know what to expect and how life may change as a result of this loss.

Children can become confused if the message is mixed. Statements like "Spot is happy in heaven" can contradict the sadness the family is feeling.

Language is very important. In our society we like to use euphemisms like "he went to sleep." This can cause considerable angst in a child who begins to equate sleeping with dying. She may develop a fear of sleeping, or may refuse to sleep alone.

Many families choose to have a memorial for their pet. This is a good introduction to how we mourn the loss of loved ones in our society. The memorial can take any form that the family favours. It can be anything from drawing pictures and recounting favourite stories to creating a stone marker for the yard or a windowsill.

Just remember to talk, cry, laugh, hug and be together just as families do when they meet life's challenges together.