Kids and pets go together like peanut butter and jelly. Whether furry, feathered, or scaly, animals provide friendship, devotion, and a chance for kids to learn the meaning of responsibility. According to a survey by the America Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA), pet ownership soared to new heights last year – 360 million pets inhabit 63 percent of U.S. households.

Unfortunately, the death of a pet might be your child’s first brush with mortality. And sometimes questions arise that confound even the most thoughtful parent.

As in most things parental, if you don’t have an answer you feel is sufficient, be honest. Admitting you don’t know if Hank is in hamster heaven is reasonable. Handling your child’s questions with compassion and patience far outweighs dubious answers.

Grief cannot be avoided. It can be postponed, but often at great expense to your child’s emotional well-being. According to Eva Shaw, Ph.D., a noted authority on death, grief, and recovery, kids need parental guidance during their mourning period. Below are five ideas for helping your child cope in a positive, timely manner.

  1. Show your emotions. Cry with your child. Talk about your feelings of loss and sadness. Expressing your feelings allows your child to understand that grief is a normal part of life. Not talking openly about death with a child is a misguided form of protection.
  2. Be honest about how your pet died. If Rosie the cat died of cancer, use the proper terminology followed by a short explanation in words that are age-appropriate. Telling your child that Rosie ran away is a disservice to Rosie and your child.
  3. Celebrate the life of your pet in a meaningful way. Include your child in creating a ritual that feels right for your family. Invite people who share a love of animals and understand the special place your pet played in your life. Ask your child to write a poem, a short story, or a fond memory to be read at the celebration. Display a photo of your pet.
  4. Don’t rush the process. Give your child the time necessary to work through thoughts and feelings. Grieving is a very personal process. It can’t be rushed.
  5. Allow sufficient time before bringing another pet into your child’s life. While the urge to replace a beloved pet can be strong, try to wait for time to heal your family’s wounds. When the time is ripe, you’ll know it.