The loss of a beloved pet is a heartbreaking experience. For young members of the family, the death of a pet represents the loss of a best friend, protector, and confidant. This is often the first exposure to grief for children. Both kids and adults can feel a lot of conflicting and difficult emotions. Recognizing and using those emotions in a constructive way is an important lesson for kids to learn.
Although children tend to grieve for shorter periods of time, their grief is no less intense than that experienced by adults. Children also may come back to the subject repeatedly so have patience. The age of the child will determine their reactions to some degree, depending on their ability to understand death.
Toddlers mainly focus on getting their needs met and may have an easier time moving on from loss. Still, very young kids will absorb the emotions around them and need love and reassurance after the death of a beloved pet.
Children in the 4, 5 and 6-year-old age range tend to have some understanding that death is permanent, but they still cannot grasp the concept in depth. Be honest and reassure them that it is not their fault, and they or their parents/siblings are not going to die anytime soon. Encourage them to share their feelings, verbally and with activities such as those that follow.
7- to 9-year-olds are at an age where they understand death is permanent, and they will have a lot of questions about death and what happens after an animal dies. Expect your child to ask challenging questions, and know it’s OK to be honest and say you don’t know the answer.
10- to 12-year-olds will react to pet loss more like an adult. However, they are still unable to cope with grief in the same way a fully developed adult does. Therefore, they still need special care and attention to help them through the grieving process. They may need support in school.
Adolescents are at a difficult stage in their lives. During this transition, adolescents often face challenges with friendships and find comfort in a friend they can always count on — the family pet. Losing this pet creates a void in their life. In addition to loneliness, adolescents often juggle homework, various activities and responsibilities. They understand death but do not have the scope of life experience to have the same perspective and coping skills as an adult. Children in this stage of life need role models they can trust and depend on to help them work through hard-to-handle emotions and any guilt they may be feeling.
How to Tell Kids You are probably wondering how you’re going to break the news to your child without breaking their heart. It’s painful to see your child upset, but it’s always best to be honest. If your child is too young to grasp the concept of death, you still want to tell the truth, but keep it as simple as possible. The pet is not coming back. If you wonder if you should have the kids present, discuss with your vet. Witnessing the event does not make it easier for young children to understand and even older kids have difficulty with the emotions.
If you know your pet does not have much time left, you can prepare ahead of time by encouraging your child to spend time with the pet and say goodbyes. Children are more prepared to accept death if they know it’s coming, and they will feel relieved to know the animal is no longer suffering.
Signs of Grief in Children: not interested in usual activities, withdrawing from friends and family, eating considerably less than usual, reverting to pre-potty training or bed wetting, afraid of being alone or going to sleep, nightmares, preoccupied with thoughts of death, acting out at home or in school. Reassure kids that they are not alone, but that you will help each other through this time of loss.
Helping Kids Cope Here are some family activities that will help you bond as you process this grief together. One way to help bring closure is to memorialize your pet. The benefits are: gives your family a way to remember the good times, helps express grief, and brings comfort to you and your children.
- Write a note or letter to the pet: Tell your pet know how much they meant to you and how much you’ll miss them. Let your children know it’s OK to share or be as private as they like. They could also write a song or a poem.
- Paint or draw your pet: Spend time painting with your child, then hang your finished pictures in a special place. You could also make a photo book.
- Have a burial ceremony: Let your child be part of the process. Place the pet’s favorite toy at the grave. Or if you had your pet cremated, spread the cremains in a meaningful location. Perhaps your pet had a favorite walking trail, or maybe they loved a certain area of the yard.
- Create a pet memorial in your home: Have a special place in the home to display keepsakes, such as an urn or paw imprint, collar, tags and other items to remember your pet by.
- Read a book with your child: Reading a book about pet loss will help you explore your emotions together. It may also help you answer your child’s questions. Some recommended picture books you can enjoy together include: When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers, Always and Forever by Alan Durant, Bear’s Last Journey by Udo Weigelt, Sammy in the Sky by Barbara Walsh, or The Dead Bird by Margaret Brown Wise.
- Get a stuffed animal that looks like their beloved pet. This especially helps if their pet slept with them before their passing. It’s comforting to your child to have the stuffed animal to pet, talk to and cuddle with as they go through the grieving process.
A helpful video for children dealing with the loss of a pet is one called A Hole in My Heart by Liz Hauser, a child herself. She was 8 when her beloved Bubba died. Find it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuZ_j6FFxrg .
Pets enrich our lives in so many ways, but it’s part of the contract that we will lose them. It’s very important to process our feelings of loss, so that we eventually become able to welcome a new pet into our lives, never replacing the ones that went before, but to fill a new corner of our hearts. Remember, your love is felt by your pets even after they pass.
If you have any helpful tips on what worked for your family, please share in the comments below.
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