To a child, a pet is more than just a member of the family; the pet is a friend and a beloved confidant. Pets are there when a child is sad and happy and there to play or cuddle. The death of a pet may be the first experience a child has with loss and that loss can be a complete blow to a child’s world.
Processing the Loss
Whether it is a dog, cat, hamster or fish, to a child, a pet is special and loved. But each child is an individual who deals with loss in his or her own way and, according to the Association for Pet Loss & Bereavement (APLB), age affects how loss is processed.
Different Age, Different Approach
For preschoolers, death isn’t seen as something that is forever. According to the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, this belief in impermanent death (or temporary death) can be attributed to shows and cartoons that often show characters that come back to life.
Early grade school age children may understand that death is forever but may not see death as something that can affect their lives. The loss can seem like a terrible blow, and, according to Healthychildren.org, this age group of kids might blame themselves for the death. No matter why a pet passed on, parents need to reassure kids that the death had no link to the child’s actions.
Older kids and teens, however, will handle a loss like most adults. Parents may see children cycle through the stages of grief: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and, finally, acceptance. Often times, not all these stages are experienced but, eventually, older children will accept the loss.
What You Can Do
Helping all age groups cope with their loss and sadness will better allow them to heal. Younger kids might just want to talk about the animal. Parents can encourage them to draw pictures of their pet to help cope with the loss. Framing a photo of a child with his or her friend may be a priceless keepsake that helps them cope.
Some children may want to plan a family memorial service for the pet. This can be very helpful in the child’s grieving process by allowing the child to process the loss. Everyone says goodbye in his or her own way. If a child needs this type of formal farewell, parents should try to embrace the idea even though it might be difficult for the parents to face the loss. Holding a service for the family to say goodbye (even if it’s just in the backyard) may help everyone receive a bit of closure.
Often, families choose to cremate beloved pets. Children may help decide where to place the ashes or where to scatter the ashes. If children don’t want to be involved in this process, parents should respect their wishes. Again, every child is different and unique in their grief.
While some kids may take a loss incredibly hard, others may even seem ambivalent to the loss. This isn’t a sign of lack of emotion. It simply may be that they are trying to process the loss. If a child needs to talk, he or she should feel safe coming to parents.
Still, if a child seems to sink into depression and the grief associated with the loss is affecting daily life, parents should consult the child’s pediatrician. A child might need to talk to a professional about the loss. Grief can lead to depression.
Grieve by Example
A loss of a beloved family pet is traumatic for the entire family. For kids, however, this loss may be the first death they experience. Every child will have their own unique way of handling grief and emotions. Parents can help by being an emotional support system for the children, although grief-stricken parents also may be having a difficult time coping with the loss. Seeing a parent cry might be difficult for children, but it also helps children see that crying is helpful and ok. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and that, perhaps, is the most important lesson a parent can teach a grief-stricken child.
The information and advice given in the blog are for educational and informational purposes only. If you are concerned or unsure with how your child is dealing with the death of a pet, we advise you to contact your health professional or other trusted counseling source.