When a child loses a pet

The death of a family pet is often a child’s first experience with the loss of a beloved special friend.  This can be a very difficult time for a child, as well as for parents.  The loss of a pet provides an opportunity for parents to teach their children how to express their feelings of grief without shame or embarrassment and to cope with their emotions in a way that brings the experience to a healthy closure.  The lessons learned by a child today may help him/her cope with more difficult and trying situations later in life.  While the ideas and suggestions in this packet of information may not be ideal for each and every situation or family, the packet is designed as a guide to help parents better support their child through the grieving process after the death of a family pet. 

Making the loss of a pet a shared family experience may well be one of the most important aspects of helping a child cope with the loss.  It is all right for children to see their parents cry.  Be honest with children.  Allow them to be involved in decisions regarding treatment, euthanasia, and body care.  Recognize that many children benefit from being with their pets when they are euthanized or from seeing the pet’s body after they have died (as long as the child is well-prepared for what to expect).  The goal is to help children learn how to accept death as a permanent goodbye and to celebrate life and cultivate fond memories.

Key points to remember

  1. Do not wait for the big “tell all” to begin helping children understand death. Both birth and death are parts of life, and children are naturally curious about them.  However, they do not need to know everything all at once.  Children learn early that loss and change happen.  Encourage children to ask questions about death.  Use every opportunity to ease the child into knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of loss and change, including death.  Do not be evasive, and do not use misleading euphemisms.
  2. Be honest and use accurate vocabulary as much as possible.  Never tell a child that the pet was “put to sleep” or that it has “gone to sleep”. Say that the pet died and it is dead…much like a flower or a leaf lives and dies.
  3. Understand that healing grief is a process, not an event.  Grief is a profound feeling of sadness that is a natural and normal reaction to the loss of what has been dearly loved.  Overcoming grief takes time.
  4. Do not tell the child what to feel.  The objective is to teach the child how to deal with what is felt by what you say and do.  Explain that everyone has his or her own feelings about the pet and its loss.  
  5. The emotional reaction to the death of a pet is determined by the degree of involvement with the animal.  Parental reaction may be more profound than the children’s.  Do not make the mistake of thinking children’s thoughts and feelings are or should be the same.
  6. Discover what each child is experiencing.  The love experience each child had with the pet was unique and personal, try to determine what the child is thinking and feeling about the loss.  Allow the child to communicate his or her personal grief experience – do not assume you know.
  7. Do not assume that children always grieve in some kind of orderly and predictable way.  Do not assume that every child in a certain age group understands death the same way or has the same thoughts and feelings.  Some experts talk about stages of grief.  These stages are transitional phases.  The stages can actually appear simultaneously, be skipped, or appear in a different order.  
  8. Be alert to “magical thinking” and feelings of self-blame.  Sometimes children believe that their thoughts can cause things to happen.  We all sometimes wish the dog or cat would go away and leave us alone.  If the child has had thoughts like this, the youngster may think that they caused the death.  Such a situation has to be confronted directly and corrected by sympathetic explanations of what really caused the death.  If a pet has been troublesome, the child may experience a feeling of relief that it is gone, and may or may not feel guilty about it.  Relief may well be a natural and normal reaction, and the child should not be blamed for being indifferent to the pet’s death.  If the pet was suffering, and death was a mercy, a feeling of relief may be present.  The child should be encouraged to perceive its death as a blessing and freedom from pain.
  9. Help the child to celebrate the life and good memories of the pet.  Tour the photo album and use the photos to stimulate special memories, fun times, and funny things.  Allow the child to cry when these stimulate a feeling of sadness, and then encourage the child to laugh at the funny things.  A good cry and a good laugh can be therapeutic.
  10. Have a goodbye ceremony.  The pet, or its cremains, can be buried. The excellent book by Judith Viorst, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, communicates this idea in a charming way.  If the pet is cremated, the cremains can be mixed with wildflower seeds and be scattered in some special place where the seeds will always blossom as a tribute to the life of the pet.  Not only is this a beautiful way to say goodbye, it helps remind children that life continues in some form and teaches them a healthy way to bring the loss experience to closure.
  11. Tell children to expect to feel sad, perhaps for a long time, whenever they think of the pet’s death.  Explain to them that this is normal, just like feeling joy whenever they remember how much fun they had with the animal.  
  12. Do not try to “cover up” the grieving process by getting a new pet too soon.  Wait until the entire family is emotionally ready for a new pet (especially the children).  Emphasize to the children that the new pet is not a replacement for their departed special friend.  There is no way to replace that loss, and it is important for children to understand this point. 

Reprinted with permission from the TIGER committee (University of Missouri-Columbia VMTH) and Colorado State University VTH

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