Last week, I shared my family’s personal journey through pet ownership and the recent loss of Billy the Goat, which (although through much emotional pain) we were fortunately able to endure. The experience left me thinking about how children at different ages process and come to accept the passing of a family pet. This loss is often as profound and painful as the passing of a human family member or close friend. In many instances for young children, the loss of your family pet may very well be a child’s first experience with death.
It is essential to understand that the death of a cherished pet creates a sense of loss for any individual and produces a predictable chain of emotions. The stages of grief are typically denial, sadness, depression, guilt, anger, and, eventually, relief (or recovery). However, the effects on children vary widely depending on the child's age and maturity level. The basis for their reaction to the loss of a pet is their ability to comprehend and process the concept of death.
It’s best not to make assumptions about how a child is feeling about death — no matter their age. Many parents speculate that their children have opinions and beliefs identical to their own. Realize that this may not be the case. Children are exposed to a great deal of information from outside sources beyond their parents, and of course the older they are, this type of information becomes that much more relevant for them. According to grief experts, you should always ask children how they are feeling and never assume how they are feeling or tell them how they should be feeling.
Talk to your children in an open, honest manner and share your feelings in a way that encourages children to share theirs. Remember that you are their safe harbor during these times, so take care to avoid out-of-control expressions of grief in front of them. Crying with them is appropriate. Wailing, screaming, or other dramatic displays could frighten your children and make them feel they need to be your safe harbor. Remember, sharing in your children’s sorrow is okay — overwhelming them with yours is not.
Keeping the lines of communication open with children is the best way to understand their thoughts throughout the grief process. And I purposefully used the word process. As parents, it’s important to remember that grief is a process and not an event. And the good news is that the vast majority of children will make adjustments reasonably and healthily during this process — provided the parents’ approach is gentle, simple, and honest.
Following is some more age-specific advice on how to speak with children regarding the loss of a pet:
Children Ages Two to Four
Toddlers are unlikely to understand the concept of death truly. Very plainly tell children in this age group that their pet has died and will not return. There is no reason to go into too much detail. These children will probably have many questions, and they very well might ask the same question over and over again. This repetition is entirely reasonable for this age range; however, it’s still best to keep the information you provide as simple as possible. Also, try to resist sugarcoating the facts. Many parents — with the most well-meaning intentions — tell their little ones that their beloved pet has gone to sleep for a very long time or that God loved the pet too and he has taken him or her to heaven. While these types of explanations can seem perfectly harmless to an adult — because we understand the concepts — they may inadvertently cause fear for toddlers and young children who then become worried. They may worry about going to sleep for fear they may go to sleep for a very long time too, or they could become frightened that God may decide to snatch them or other loved ones up to heaven at any moment.
Children Ages Four to Six
Preschoolers tend to view death as more of a change in presence — in a way that relates to a continued existence somewhere else — rather than the finality of an end to life. Often children these ages fantasize that the beloved pet has gone on to live elsewhere — for instance, heaven — where the pet is seen to be eating, breathing, and playing as usual. Death, in other words, may seem like a continuation of life. They may also see death as an inactive state, from which the pet will eventually return. Conceptualizing this way is normal for this aged children and should be seen as a healthy way for children to cope with death. Four to six years of age is also a range when children are more apt to feel responsible for a pet’s death — often related to anger they may have felt at one time towards the pet. Although this too can be relatively normal for this age, it is necessary to refute any feelings the child is having for being responsible for the death. Four to six is also an age at which children see the end of life as being a contagious condition, and they begin to fear that their own death (or the death of other loved ones) is imminent. It's best to quell these feelings too. You’ll find for this developmental age, reassurance that they are not responsible for the death and that they are not going to die is most productive when implemented in short, honest, and frequent discussions — as opposed to one or two prolonged sessions.
Children Ages Seven to Nine
At ages seven to nine years old the irreversibility of death becomes very real to children. This stage of life is also when children begin to feel confident infallibility, so they don’t necessarily personalize death (as younger children do) and think that it will happen to them. However, for some children, the loss of a pet could spark concerns for the death of their parents or other loved ones. Children ages seven to nine who are experiencing grief and fear of death often begin to develop learning problems, antisocial behavior, hypochondriacal concerns, or even aggression. They may withdraw or cling to parents. If you notice a child in this age range exhibiting any of these behaviors following the loss of a pet — even weeks to months following the death — it is probably time to have a more candid discussion about death. It is best to have a healthy conversation about the reality and finality, explaining that death is always a possibility in life — while comforting the child by offering reassurance that it is unlikely for parents and other loved ones to die.
Children Adolescence through Teens
Older children and teens are often striving to be grown-up and therefore, tend to try to accept the death of a pet much like an adult would. There is, however, a pretty stark difference between a young adult and an older adult — that being actual encounters with death. Most adults have had more experience with death and the feelings that accompany loss — including an essential realization that while life is never quite the same, things do feel better with time. For this reason, it is critical to reassure an adolescent or teenager that as painful as it is to lose a pet, the immediate and intense sorrow they feel following the sad event will subside in time.
What Can I Do to Help My Child Get Over the Loss of a Pet?
All the things that help an adult through loss can be just as effective for children — reassurance, empathy, sympathy, condolences, kindness, patience, love, memorializing — just to name a few.
Here are some ideas:
• Give plenty of hugs and reassurance that with time, although they will never forget the pet, the pain will subside.
• Do not keep things regarding the death of the pet from your children — they will be curious and it best to address curiosity with age-appropriate explanations, rather than ignore it.
• Offer children choices in how they wish to say 'good-bye' to the cherished member of the family; this will help them feel that they have some control over the death.
• Have children be a part of the decision to cremate or bury the pet.
• Share memorable stories about the pet as a family — laugh and cry freely.
• Applaud children for talking about their feelings and the pet as much as they'd like.
• Hold a heartfelt memorial service for the pet.
• Allow children to pick something that belonged to the pet to be a part of the memorial service — a favorite toy, collar, leash, pet tags, etc.
• Allow children to keep something that belonged to the pet — a favorite toy, collar, leash, pet tags, etc.
• Encourage children to draw or paint a picture of the pet, write a story about the pet, or compose a letter to the pet.
• Gather family photographs that include the pet and create a scrapbook of fond memories.
• Print out a beautiful copy of the Rainbow Bridge Poem to read aloud and include in your scrapbook.
• Read children’s books on death and bereavement.
• Check out "I Miss My Pet: A Workbook for Children About Pet Loss" by Katie Nurmi©
Pets become such a huge part of the family; it's easy to understand why we all hugely grieve their passing. Children in particular — for whom death is already a confusing and traumatic thought — can have an especially difficult time sorting through their emotions. Parents must bear in mind that although children seem to grieve for shorter periods of time, their grief is no less intense than that experienced by adults. We sincerely hope that you do not have to face the loss of a pet anytime soon; however, should you find a furry friend a part of your family — in the inevitability of their death someday, we hope our ideas will help you help your children through their sadness.
Oh! And by the way, we'd be ever so grateful if you'd...