Children and Pet Loss
Children often have a particularly close relationship with their pet. Animals can play an important role in the emotional development of the child, and provide a source of companionship, non-judgmental affection, security and stability in their life. When the pet dies, the child’s response will depend not only on the strength of the emotional bond between them, but also on the age of the child and the manner in which the death is handled. Although children tend to grieve for shorter periods of time, their grief is no less intense than that experienced by adults. It is natural to want to protect our children from painful experiences. Most adults, however, are surprised to find how well most children adjust to the death of a pet if they are prepared with honest, simple explanations. Children also tend to come back to the subject repeatedly; so extreme patience is required when dealing with the grieving child. From a young age, children begin to understand the concept of death, even though they may be unaware of it at a conscious level.
The worse thing an adult can do is to ignore the child’s feelings. It is particularly bad to prevent the child from seeing the deceased pet, or from talking about it, as this is part of the “saying Goodbye” and will prevent them from fully grieving over the loss. They are NEVER too young to understand, only the level to which they understand varies.
Children are capable of understanding, each in their own way, that life must end for all living things. Support their grief by acknowledging their pain. The death of a pet can be an opportunity for a child to learn that adult caretakers can be relied upon to extend comfort and reassurance. It is an important opportunity to encourage a child to express his or her feelings.
You may find it helpful to hold a simple memorial ceremony for your pet – this can be an important way of helping children to come to terms with the death and lets them know that they are not the only ones feeling the loss. However, children should not be forced to attend such a service if they do not wish to.
The following are rough guidelines as to the typical behaviour and feelings that a child may have. As mentioned previously the process of grief is not a cut and dried process that can be subdivided into strict categories nor is it an exact science.
Two and Three Year Olds
Children who are two or three years old typically have no understanding of death. They often consider it a form of sleep. They should be told that their pet has died and will not return. Common reactions to this include temporary loss of speech and generalized distress. The two- or three-year-old should be reassured that the pet’s failure to return is unrelated to anything the child may have said or done. Typically, a child in this age range will readily accept another pet in place of the dead one. Give the child plenty of hugs and reassurance. A simple hug is a very powerful gesture.
Four, Five, and Six Year Olds
Children in this age range have some understanding of death but in a way that relates to a continued existence. The pet may be considered to be living underground while continuing to eat, breathe, and play. Alternatively, it may be considered asleep. A return to life may be expected if the child views death as temporary. These children often feel that any anger they had for the pet may be responsible for its death. This view should be refuted because they may also translate this belief to the death of family members in the past. Some children also see death as contagious and begin to fear that their own death (or that of others) is imminent. They should be reassured that their death is not likely. Manifestations of grief often take the form of disturbances in bladder and bowel control, eating, and sleeping. This is best managed by parent-child discussions that allow the child to express feelings and concerns. The encouragement of drawing pictures and writing stories about the loss and their thoughts may help. Several brief discussions are generally more productive than one or two prolonged sessions. They will need a great deal of parental support and reassurance at this time. Give the child plenty of hugs and reassurance. A simple hug is a very powerful gesture. Try and include the child in everything that is going on, especially the funeral arrangements. Upon returning to school don’t forget to tell their teacher about the pet’s death, they can often help and will understand the reason for the sudden mood changes displayed by the child in class.
Seven, Eight, and Nine Year Olds
The irreversibility of death becomes real to these children and they become aware that death is final and inevitable for all living beings, they may even believe in an afterlife. They usually do not personalize death, thinking it cannot happen to themselves. However, some children may develop concerns about death of their parents. They may become very curious about death and its implications. They are able to comprehend the meaning of death and it is important that they are allowed to express their feelings of loss and are not dismissed as being too young to understand. Try and include the child in everything that is going on, especially the funeral arrangements. Parents should be ready to respond frankly and honestly to questions that may arise. Several manifestations of grief may occur in these children, including the development of school problems, learning problems, unruly behaviour, or aggression. In addition, withdrawal, over-attentiveness, or clinging behaviour may be seen. Based on grief reactions to loss of parents or siblings, it is likely that the symptoms may not occur immediately but several weeks or months later. Again, upon returning to school don’t forget to tell their teacher about the pet’s death, they can often help and will understand the reason for the sudden mood changes displayed by the child in class.
From Nine Years Onwards
Most children can understand the concept of death and how grief can affect them. They may, and probably will, experience the same range of emotions as adults following the death of their pet. However, some adolescents may exhibit various forms of denial. This usually takes the form of a lack of emotional display. Consequently, these young people may be experiencing sincere grief without any outward signs showing. It is important that the adult is aware and encouraging the grieving process to take place.
If euthanasia is necessary for your pet, try to involve the children in the decision-making process, if they are old enough to understand. There may be feelings of resentment because children do not necessarily understand that many factors must be taken into account, such as the concepts of incurable disease, quality of life and the limiting cost of treatment. Be careful about using the phrase put to sleep to describe euthanasia, since this can cause misunderstanding and fear in children who may then equate sleep with death.
It is important to encourage children to talk about their feelings if they want to. Encouraging them to write stories or draw pictures are other ways in which children are able to express themselves, you will be surprised at some of the results and detail that goes into the pictures and stories. Be honest with them about your pet’s death, using language which they will understand, and allow them to share in the family’s grief.