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Parents with Nonverbal Child Seek Advice on Preparing for Pet’s Death

“Our 7 year old daughter has autism and is nonverbal. She adores our very old cat. How can we be ready to help her deal with the coming loss?”

This week’s “Got Questions?” answer is from clinical psychologist Lauren Elder. Dr. Elder is Autism Speaks assistant director for dissemination science

It’s wonderful that your daughter feels so close to her pet. Dealing with a pet’s death tends to be difficult for any child. The distress can be even greater for children who don’t understand what happened and why they can’t see their pet anymore.

While you can never completely predict or prepare for your child’s reaction, here are some ideas that I hope can help ease the situation.

Begin the larger discussion
Begin looking for natural opportunities to talk about death, such as when death comes up in books or on TV, or when someone you know loses someone dear to them. For instance, consider talking with your daughter about what happened when a friend’s pet died. You might begin with the practical, such as “Jenny’s dog died. Now the dog’s body is buried in the ground.”

Also talk about the emotional aspects. For instance, “Jenny is sad because her dog died, and she misses her dog. That’s why we’re giving her a hug and telling her we’re sorry.”

It’s important for your child to understand that death is something that happens as a natural part of life. But be careful with the words you use. Avoid words like “sleeping” or “saying good-bye.” These terms can be confusing and frightening. You don’t want your child to become afraid to go to sleep, or think that saying “good-bye” might be forever. Instead make it clear that the pet that died is gone.

You might also talk about your family’s beliefs about what happens after death.

When verbal skills are limited
Consider visual supports or social stories to help your daughter understand. You want to keep the information at her level as much as possible. That can be tricky, I know. You may want to write a social story or get a children’s book about a pet dying. I also suggest taking some pictures of your daughter and the cat. She may find it comforting to see them after your cat has died.

Expect to have a conversation about her cat’s death, or to read her a social story explaining it, many times. The repetition can help a child with autism process what happened. It can also be comforting to hear it explained the same way multiple times.

Invite your child to be a part of the process
If you know that your cat's death is imminent, consider taking your daughter to see her pet one last time. Allow her to say goodbye. You might then invite her to help pack up the cat’s bowl and toys and put them away. Comfort her when she’s sad and let her see that you’re sad too. And remember those pictures you took of her with the cat. Perhaps put them in a little book that she can look at for comfort.

Also allow your daughter the space to grieve in her own way. She may not be sad right away, especially if she doesn’t yet understand that the cat isn’t coming back. She may search for her pet, or even get angry. These are natural reactions.

For more resources, please see Autism Speaks “Bereavement and Grief” resource page, here.

I wish you and your daughter – and your pet – more good times together.