Children often develop intense bonds with their pet and may see their pet as a beloved member of the family. The death of a pet may be your child’s first experience of death. Some children may not even remember a time in their life when their loved companion wasn’t around. This may also be your first opportunity to teach your child about coping with the grief and pain that inevitably comes with loving a pet. Learning how to deal with the emotions of death, is a skill, that can build your child’s resilience.
1. It’s normal to feel intense grief
It’s normal for a child to feel intense grief and sadness when a pet dies. Allow your child to feel proud that they have so much compassion and care so deeply about their pet. The level of grief that a child feels will depend on: the child’s age, personality, temperament, how long they have had the pet, and the circumstances of the pet’s death. Generally, the more significant the loss, or distressing the death, the more intense the grief felt. For some children this loss may be traumatic. Letting your child see you express your own grief at the death of the pet may be helpful.
2. What should I tell my child?
You are the best judge of how much information your child can handle about the death of their pet. However, don’t underestimate them. If a parent assumes a child is: too young; or too sensitive to grieve, they may try to shield their child from the emotions involved. Hide and avoid from these feelings, and your child will learn to hide from these feelings. Parents may hide from feelings by: not talking about the pet’s death; or by not being honest about what happened.
Being honest with your child allows them the opportunity to grieve in their own way. When talking with your child try and use the term ‘death’. This will create a dialogue about death, and gives children a message that death is a normal part of life – that it’s hard to deal with, but manageable. By being open and honest you are also giving them a signal that says that they are strong enough to handle this.
3. Fears and misperceptions of death
The death of a pet can raise a lot of questions and fears in a child. A child may feel scared that other people or animals they love may also die. It is normal for children to ask if their parents will die, and to inquire more about death. It’s important to talk about their concerns openly, and provide reassurance.
4. Everyone grieves differently
The grieving process is a personal experience that happens only gradually. It can’t be forced or hurried. Grief does not always unfold in orderly, predictable stages, and it’s important to be patient with your child and allow the process to unfold. The feelings of grief are likely to be deeper and longer at the beginning and then gradually become shorter and less intense as time goes by. Even years after a death, an image, a sound, or a special anniversary can spark memories that trigger a strong emotional reaction.
One aspect that can make grieving more difficult is when others don’t understand the intensity of pain a child is feeling. Statements like: “be strong”; “don’t cry”; “don’t feel so sad”; or “it will be O.K” tell children how they should be feeling. A child’s grief is their own, and no one else can tell them when it’s time to “move on” or to “get over it”. Let children feel whatever they feel without judgment.
5. Tips for coping with the emotions of pet loss
Sadness and grief are normal and natural responses to death and there are helpful ways to cope. You might not know exactly what to say or what to do, but that’s okay. You don’t need to have all the answers or give advice. A key part of a child managing grief, is having an adult in their life that uses healthy ways to cope and who can help a child comfort and express their emotions.
Comfort your child’s emotions
- Give your child more of your time;
- Tune into your child’s feelings, and name the feeling they’re experiencing;
- Reinforce that it is normal to feel the way they are feeling;
- Be available to sit in silence and physically comfort;
- Be available when your child wants to talk about their pet, even if they want to talk about how the pet died, over and over again – be there and let the child talk it through – it is all about them processing and understanding death;
- Children are better able to manage their emotions and manage grief when they do it with an adult. Your ability to manage their intense emotions and comfort them, is the starting place for showing them that they too can manage intense emotions.
Help your child express their feelings
- Work with children to write about their feelings, write a letter, poem, story, draw a picture, allow them to talk openly about their pet. For children to be able to move on from intense grief it is necessary that they face their feelings.
- A funeral can help your child and family openly express their feelings. Do what feels right for you. Preparing a memorial, planting a tree, compiling a photo album or scrapbook, and sharing memories, can create a legacy to celebrate the life of your pet.
Look after yourself and your child
- The death of a pet can be stressful and your child will need support taking care of their physical and emotional needs to help them get through this difficult time. You and your child may benefit from: eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep, talking and socialising with friends; increasing physical activity, and keeping your normal daily routine.
6. Watch for warning signs
If your child’s grief and sadness don’t gradually fade – or they get worse with time – this may be a sign that normal grief has evolved into a more serious problem, and you may need professional help.
7. When should I buy a replacement pet?
Children need the space and time to grieve the death of their pet. The temptation to rush out and fill the void left by your pet’s death immediately can send a message that the grief and sadness felt when a pet dies can simply be overcome by buying a replacement.
In most cases, wait until your child is emotionally ready to open their heart to a new pet. A new pet should be acquired because your child is ready to move forward and build a new relationship. When ready, select a pet that allows your child to build another long, loving relationship, because this is what having a pet is all about!
Andrew Sozomenou is a Senior Psychologist and Director of the READ Clinic. He has worked with children, families and adults for over 15 years. He specialises in working with: children experiencing behavioural issues, parenting and attachment; childhood trauma, anxiety and depression; school related issues, and issues of bereavement.