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Helping a Toddler Accept a Pet's Death

QUESTION: Our old cat will need to be put "put to sleep" soon. We'll be moving a month later. How do I explain the cat's death to my son, who will be 22 months old? I am especially concerned with him equating the move and her disappearance.

ANSWER: You are right to be concerned about the association of loss of an important pet in the family with your upcoming move. However, one month is a very long time to a child of this age. It is possible to deal with saying good-bye to his special pet in the month before you change residence. If possible, lengthen the period of time between the two transitions. Even a couple of weeks more will provide a much larger perceived time separation for your toddler.

Begin talking to your child about the fact that his kitty is very sick. Read him a story about pet loss appropriate to his age. Although he will not completely understand the concept of death, he will begin talking about it, if you do. This will help him grieve his pet later.

When the time approaches, perhaps a few days before, let your son know that you will be having a ritual for saying good-bye to his cat because she will be dying. Emphasize then, and before, that she has lived a long life before he was born and she has lived a long time in cat years. Again, he will not completely comprehend what you are saying, but he will likely repeat the story you tell him about this transition. It will comfort him because he trusts you.

Plant some flowers -- as a ritual -- and put a picture of the cat up on the refrigerator for a few days after her death, if you like. This way he will be able to point to and see the picture when his cat is gone, which will create a psychological step between interacting with his pet and her disappearance. In the same vein, it would be a good idea to help him begin separating from his cat gradually by letting him know that she is too sick to sleep with him and maybe even taking the feedings into your own hands while he helps.

We all deal with big transitions better when we are able to take smaller steps to ease adjustment.

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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