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The death of a family pet is often the first time a child faces the passing of a loved one—and it’s important to give the event adequate attention. Too often, parents are so engulfed in the logistics and emotions surrounding the pet’s death they forget to help children grieve. Other times, children are shielded from these upsetting experiences, yet they sense something is wrong. Older children recognize this loss and can be expected to manage their emotions themselves. Typically, the subject of death is unfamiliar to children. Their friends may have experienced the loss of a family member. In movies and on television, children are regularly exposed to death. Yet, helping a child cope with grief teaches them how to manage personal loss—a valuable lesson for the rest of their lives.
For children, pets are furry companions, siblings, playmates and protectors. Their grieving process calls for guidance to understand loss, to mourn, and to remember. So, it’s important for parent to have bereavement support for themselves, in order to help their children.
Inviting children to participate in decisions regarding burial, scattering of ashes and planning memorials, to the extent of the child’s maturity accommodates such activities.
Children are naturally curious about death, but their age and familial attitudes cause varied behaviors, which means a parent may need to impart a variety of coping skills. How a child responds depends on:
Young children lack the experience to understand the loss of a pet, but they sense that you coping with grief and model your behavior. This means it’s acceptable to show your own feelings as a normal reaction to loss. It’s OK to explain that the pet has died and will not come back. For children at this age, it’s critical that they understand that they are not responsible for the death. It’s also important to maintain the child’s routine. Young children will easily accept new pets.
Children may wonder if their pet is sleeping or continuing their activities. Sometimes they’re angry with their pet. Feelings of grief may translate into stomachaches or changes in sleeping or eating habits. Casual, matter-of-fact talks with the child can be reassuring and make the child comfortable with discussing his or her feelings. Creative expression, such as drawing pictures and writing stories, can help. Children of this age can also be included in funeral arrangements.
Curiosity and the awareness of death as irreversible grow throughout the elementary school years—and children may be concerned about losing a parent. Grief may appear as an academic slump, fighting or physical complaints. A pet’s death can spark memories of previous loss and magnify the experience. It’s best to be available to talk, draw out a child’s concerns and honestly answer questions even when they seem morbid. Children may also cling or withdraw. Either way, it is important to make sure children understand that they are not responsible for the loss of the pet.
Similar to other upsetting events, a teen’s reaction to the loss of a pet can range from indifference to traumatic. Ongoing conflicts with a parent may exacerbate the teen’s ability to express grief—making supportive friends an important aspect to coping with their emotions. A parent’s patience and flexibility—providing a hug, a talk or simply some space—is the best approach.
Even young adults can be deeply affected by the death of a pet. Often, the animal is one that they have had since childhood, making the loss particularly difficult. In addition, because they may have left home, they may feel guilty and regret not having spent more time with the pet. Stress from the challenges of living on their own or handling the demands of college can increase their grief. Being away from home makes it difficult for them to say goodbye to the pet and share the experience with family members who understand their loss.
If your child loses a pet, it’s wise to inform teachers or other caregivers, so they understand changes in behavior. Day care providers and teachers observe your child on a regular basis and may notice changes. Your child’s grief may diffuse his or her attention during class. They may forget homework, keep to themselves or be aggressive. Being informed of a recent loss helps the teacher address these changes. Children need guidance to cope—and support from others in your child’s life is helpful.
Children learn how to handle loss from the adult role models in their lives—which requires adults to possess these positive coping skills. If pet loss is making you vulnerable to emotional outbursts, you may want to seek professional help for yourself—and this enhances your child’s ability to manage his or her grief. This is even more important when a family is experiencing other stressors, such as financial problems, substance abuse, divorce or other factors that threaten family stability. Be watchful if your child has already been coping with a problem when the pet loss occurred.
Children may ask many questions when their pet passes. The best approach is to be honest and compassionate. Children may ask:
Young children only need basic information to satisfy their curiosity. Other questions can be answered based on your family’s religious views regarding the soul and the afterlife. There are many books that can help you answer these questions. In addition, it’s perfectly honest to tell a child that you’re not sure you know the answer. Most importantly children need to know that they can share what’s on their mind and that feeling grief is a normal part of losing a pet.
Just as memorials can help adults through a difficult loss, children can benefit from activities that commemorate their pet’s life. Here are some ideas that can help children cope with pet loss and learn healthy responses to loss throughout life. Invite kids to: