Helping a child cope with pet loss
The loss of a pet may be your child’s first experience of death—and your first opportunity to teach them about coping with the grief and pain that inevitably accompanies the joy of loving another living creature. Losing a pet can be a traumatic experience for any child. Many kids love their pets very deeply and some may not even remember a time in their life when the pet wasn’t around. A child may feel angry and blame themselves—or you—for the pet’s death. A child may feel scared that other people or animals they love may also leave them. How you handle the grieving process can determine whether the experience has a positive or negative effect on your child’s personal development.
Some parents feel they should try to shield their children from the sadness of losing a pet by either not talking about the pet’s death, or by not being honest about what’s happened. Pretending the animal ran away, or “went to sleep,” for example, can leave a child feeling even more confused, frightened, and betrayed when they finally learn the truth. It’s far better to be honest with children and allow them the opportunity to grieve in their own way.
Tips for a helping a child cope with the loss of a pet
Let your child see you express your own grief at the loss of the pet. If you don’t experience the same sense of loss as your child, respect their grief and let them express their feelings openly, without making them feel ashamed or guilty. Children should feel proud that they have so much compassion and care deeply about their animal companions.
Reassure your child that they weren’t responsible for the pet’s death. The death of a pet can raise a lot of questions and fears in a child. You may need to reassure your child that you, their parents, are not also likely to die. It’s important to talk about all their feelings and concerns.
Involve your child in the dying process. If you’ve chosen euthanasia for your pet, be honest with your child. Explain why the choice is necessary and give the child a chance to spend some special time with the pet and say goodbye in his or her own way.
If possible, give the child an opportunity to create a momento of the pet. This could be a special photograph, or a plaster cast of the animal’s paw print, for example.
Allow the child to be involved in any memorial service, if they desire. Holding a funeral or creating a memorial for the pet can help your child express their feelings openly and help process the loss.
Do not rush out to get the child a “replacement pet” before they have had the chance to grieve the loss they feel. Your child may feel disloyal, or you could send the message that the grief and sadness felt when something dies can simply be overcome by buying a replacement.
Grief management in children
The effects on children vary widely depending on the child's age and maturity level as their reaction reflects their ability to understand death.
Typically children of this age have no understanding of death. They may consider it a form of sleep. They need to be told their pet has died and will not return. They should be reassured that the pet's failure to return is unrelated to anything the child may have said or done. Typically a toddler will readily accept another pet in place of the recently passed pet. Common reactions by toddlers include temporary loss of speech and generalised distress.
Children of this age group have some understanding of death but it may relate to continued existence elsewhere or the pet may be considered asleep. A return to life may be expected. These children may feel that any anger they had for the pet may be the cause of its death. This must be refuted as it may translate to the death of family in the past. Some children also see death as contagious and may fear their own death (or that of others) is imminent. Reassurance that this is unlikely is required. Grief may be expressed in disturbances in bladder or bowel control, eating or sleeping. This may be aided by several brief discussions allowing the child to express feeling and concerns.
Irreversibility of death is real to these children and they do not usually personalise death. They may however worry about their parents dying. Curiosity develops regarding death and its implication and as such parents need to respond honestly to questions asked. Grief may be displayed in school problems, such as learning problems, antisocial attentiveness or clinging. These may not manifest immediately but weeks or months later.
By this age death is usually understood as natural and inevitable. These children are more likely to react to death similarly to an adult.
Although this group reacts similarly to adults, they may exhibit various forms of denial. Often lack of emotional display prevents outward manifestations of sincere grief.
Contacts for counselling
Lifeline:131114 suicide helpline 1300651251
Mensline:1300789978 kids helpline 1800551800
Griefline (12pm-3am) 0399357400
petpages.com.au (under services – loss grief counselling)
RSPCA: rspcavic.org(under services,grieving for a lost pet)