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Talking About the Death of a Pet with Children

Updated: Feb 28



On Valentine's Day, I had a call from my friend. Her cat, Mochi, was dead and she was distraught.


Death often comes into our lives suddenly. My daughters (ages 13, 12 and 10) were busy preparing a Valentine's Day breakfast which we had planned to eat together before heading off on a long walk. Mochi was a cat we all loved so his death was going to affect us all. I told the children simply that I had had bad news, we were going to cancel our Valentine's breakfast because Mochi had been knocked down by a car and I was going to comfort my friend. They burst into tears.


'Is he dead?'

'Yes.'


There's no better way to tell a child about death than naming it directly.


When I returned to collect the children to see Mochi and help to bury him, I found they had eaten their breakfast together and had started on projects to honour Mochi – a slate was being engraved with his name, a portrait drawn, and stones selected for decorating the grave.


Children need to honour the dead as much as adults do and they had found their own ways to enact that.


Mochi was wrapped up in his little bed with his paw across his face to hide his broken jaw. We all took a turn to stroke him. Outside, we shared the task of digging his grave. Even for a little cat, it's quite a big hole that needs to be excavated and we got muddy and made jokes about falling in. Humour is important. Afterwards, the children asked me if it was ok to laugh and I recounted the story of how a friend turned up to my mother-in-law's funeral in a car that burst into flames We had all laughed and thought how typical it was of this friend and how much my mother-in-law would have enjoyed the spectacle.


Once Mochi was laid in his grave and we had planted a tree, we returned to my friend's house. The children served the Valentine's sweets they had made, now repurposed as funeral food to remember how much we loved Mochi. We recounted anecdotes about him – how we thought he was part otter when he was collected from the barn as a tiny kitten with his dun brown fur, flat face and round forward facing eyes. He was as round as a little dumpling – hence his name, Mochi. Even once he began to look more like a cat, he was so uncat like in his clumsiness, always breaking plants and knocking things off. He was also the most affectionate little creature imaginable and would spend the night cuddled on a lap or licking a face.


At home, the children reflected on what had happened. They expressed anger, guilt, confusion, sadness and curiosity.


'It shouldn't have happened. It ruined our day and now he's dead!'

Yes, it feels as if it shouldn't have happened and it changed our plans. We didn't get to celebrate Valentine's Day as we had planned but we were able to show our love for Mochi and our friends and it's very sad that Mochi is dead.


'I feel bad about being upset. Mochi wasn't our cat. I can't imagine how our friends feel.'

We experience grief at 100% - there are no half measures. You are experiencing your grief in full and so are our friends. We can never know how someone else feels - our friend's relationship with Mochi was different from ours. It's enough to know that it feels bad and to listen to what our friends say about their feelings.


'I wanted to comfort our friends but I didn't know how.'

That's ok. It's normal not to be certain how to act. The best thing we can do is to listen to them, to ask if there is something specific we can do and to share our authentic emotions.


'How did it happen?'

Mochi ran in front of the car and the driver couldn't stop in time.


'Why did it happen?'

I don't know. I think when it's our time, it's our time. Mochi was only 1 but it is in the natural order of things for death to come at anytime even when we're not expecting it.


'I wish he wasn't dead.'

I know. I think everyone feels like this when someone they love has died.


'I wonder where he is now?'

Have you got any ideas? I've heard lots of people who have had near death experiences describe their pets coming to meet them. I think Mochi is somewhere like the Cat Bureau.

What we know for sure is that he is not with us now and his little body is going to break down and become part of the earth.


One of my daughters asked me what I would like to be done if I had been knocked down by a car. I said that I would like less treatment rather than more, that I would prefer not to be rescussitated but that whatever they chose in the moment, would be the right decision. We talked about how their dad must have felt when his son had died suddenly in the night (before they were born so they had never known their brother).


We each spent the afternoon doing our own thing. The children were still melancholy at bedtime so we gathered round the kitchen table and made a little altar with a candle and some shells and ribbon. We lit the candle and each said something we loved about Mochi and then we said 'Goodbye Mochi' in unison and blew the candle out. It was a simple symbolic act that helped all of us say goodnight to the day that had been Mochi's last day on this earth.


Death will necessarily be part of their experience so learning about it young can be one of the kindest things we can do for our children. We make a mistake when we think we can sheild them from it – death can't be hidden, it only becomes more frightening if it's disguised or silenced. To feel comfortable talking to children about death, we have to confront our own fears and discomfort. I have learnt to do this using the Grief Recovery Method and I can help you do the same.


Rest in Peace, Mochi.



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