18 Aug 2017
Pet loss support for children: How to help them grieve

Pet loss support for children: How to help them grieve

For most children, the concept of death and grief can be confusing, especially when it’s someone they know and love. Even as adults we struggle to understand the emotions that accompany mourning. We adore our cats and dogs and birds, and so do the little humans with whom we share our homes. And when a cherished pet passes away, it’s often the first time a family experiences a loss together. 

Kids in particular are likely to react hard to the grief that goes with saying goodbye to a pet. This is especially true because of the constancy of their pet's companionship - in many cases, a favourite fish or hamster may have lived with a child for as long as he or she can remember.

Here's a story from one of my friends:

"I was 15 when I first faced real death and loss. My grandfather had died that summer. The second blow came that January when our beloved Katie was diagnosed with cancer and there was nothing we could do to help her. She had been my cat since I was four.

At this age, I understood that death is a fact of life. What I wasn’t prepared for was the emotions that came along with this experience or how my last memories of Katie would be of her scared as the vet tech brought her back into the room.

My own children were 12 and 7 when our beloved Cleo needed to be euthanized."

Talking about your loss - and theirs - may be one of the hardest things you have to do as a parent. But this is the perfect opportunity to instill good mourning habits in children to help them grow through their grief.

How to Help Your Child Through the Loss of a Pet

As a parent, you are your child’s greatest source of support and comfort following loss. You are also the person who should be modeling good mental health habits and showing them how to utilize the grief self-care tools you've learned throughout your life. That said, helping children through grief is different than working through your own, so here are some ways that you can help your child emotionally and physically during his or her mourning.

Honesty is Key

Whatever you do, don't lie or cover up what happened. It is absolutely essential that you are open and honest with your child. Be specific about the fact that your pet has died and that he or she is not coming back. What's more, tell them as soon as you know. Children pick up on your emotions. If they do not know why you're upset, it can cause even more anxiety.

It’s OK to use specific terms such as dying and euthanasia, though make sure they understand what they mean. Explain to them how the animal’s body is no longer working and that as a result, he or she can no longer be with your family.

Of course, let your personal faith and beliefs inform how you talk to your child about the new reality. If you believe all living creatures have souls or go to heaven after death, feel free to frame the discussion in those terms. 

Give Them Time to Say Goodbye

If there is time beforehand, allow your child to say goodbye to your pet. Even if they don't quite understand what is happening how, it may be incredibly valuable to them later to know that they were able to send your pet off with their thoughts of love and affection. With my friend's cat, the family waited until the next day to take her to be euthanized so that their kids could cuddle her one last time.

Talk About It

Gently encourage your child to talk about what happened. Let them know how you’re feeling and why you’re sad, and encourage them to share in similar ways. It’s important that they see it’s acceptable to cry. Remember everyone processes death and grief differently. If you and your child read together, an appropriate book on grief can help open a discussion.

Let Their Process Be Unique

Be respectful that your child’s mourning process may be different than yours. As we know from the various theories on bereavement, everyone journeys through loss in a way unique to them, and your child is no different. Allow him or her to address the tasks of mourning or go through the stages of grief in ways that feel most natural to him or her.

Reassure Your Child That This Is NOT His or Her Fault

When any loved one dies, including a pet, some kids may feel they did something wrong to cause this loss. Explain to them that there was nothing they could have done to prevent this death. This might be a good time to talk about the natural cycles of the earth...

Update Others

Make sure extended family, teachers, and other care providers are aware of this loss. Doing so ensures that all those responsible for caring for your child throughout the day are on alert for problem signs and for being available to lend a listening ear or a word of encouragement.

Include Your Child in Memorializing Your Pet

Ask your child to be part of the process when it comes to how to remember your pet. It could be a formal memorial service in your back yard or at a local pet cemetery or ash distribution in which prayers or poems are read. It could be a tree planted in your pet’s memory or donations made to an animal shelter. You may also wish to get creative in memorializing your pet with your child's help: Create a scrap book with favourite memories or a plaster cast of the pet’s paw print. Whatever you choose to do to mark the occassion, you will be helping your child form memories of positive grieving while providing safe outlets for them to express emotions.

Pet Loss Support Children Tiny Pet Memories

Helping A Child Understand Pet Loss Through the Development Years

Of course, we also need to acknowledge that children react to grief differently depending on how old they are at the time. Whether your child is just barely speaking or has already entered puberty, these pointers may help you in understanding how your child grasps death:

  • Under 2: At this age, a child’s primary response will likely be to emotions and stress of grieving family members.
  • 2 to 5: During the toddler years, a child will notice the missing pet, but more in the sense of the animal as a playmate. Toddlers see death as temporary, not permanent. The stress from others mourning could cause behavior regression.
  • 5 to 9: Children of this age group recognize the permanence of death, though they may resort to wishing the pet could be returned. They might also try to connect something bad they said or thought to what happened to the pet. It’s important to reassure them there is no correlation.
  • 10 and up: Older children know that all living things die. However, they need help understanding the stages of grief: denial, anger, guilt, depression, and acceptance and how to grow through them. Depending on the child, he or she may act out in different ways.

Need a little help supporting your child through his or her pet loss experience. Try this free printable which walks you through how to build your network of support so that you can get the kinds of assistance you need.

What NOT to SAY or DO With Your Child When Facing Pet Loss

We've covered a lot of the most important things you can actively do to support your child after a pet passes away. But there are also a few words and/or activities you should avoid when relating to young people about bereavement. Here are some practices that cause more damage than good.

Do Not Lie to Your Child About What Happened

Some people have tried to lessen the grief by telling their child that the pet ran away or is living on a farm. This can lead a child to expect the animal to return or at least they'll be able to see him or her again. You don't want your child to will realize mom or dad didn’t tell the truth and create trust issues and resentment in the process.

Be Careful Using Common Terms

If your pet is euthanized, do be careful about using the phrase, “put to sleep,” especially with younger children as it could cause fear about going to bed. Explain that the pet will be given medicine that will painlessly stop his or her heart from beating and that after that, they will not live any more.

Don’t Pass Blame

Avoid phrases like “God took Fluffy because he needed a good dog in heaven,” as a child can become fearful or resentful of God. They might worry about who is next. Be careful not to blame the veterinarian, either, as this can cause a child to fear medical professionals.

Don’t Try to Replace the Pet

Your pet was a member of your family and deserves to be grieved. If you rush out and bring home a new pet, especially one that looks similar to the one you just loss, it’s a recipe for failure. The child might expect the new animal to behave like the one he or she is grieving or he or she might feel disloyal to the deceased pet. In general, it's not a good idea to teach a child that any living thing can be replaced. Allow your child to learn that it's ok to miss a member of the family after he or she has gone and to value the good memories they have. Then, when the time is right, introduce a new pet into the family.

What to Expect for Children Post Pet Loss

Grief can cause people’s behavior to change, even temporarily, as they work through the stages. The same is true for children. You'll want to watch out for signs of mental health group by keeping an eye out for reactions such as these:

  • Regressive Behavior: A child might revert back to behaviours he or she outgrew, such as thumb sucking or bed wetting.
  • Withdrawal: Even a social child might lose interest in friends, activities, or school while working through his or her grief.
  • Curiosity with and Fear of Death: In particular, if this is a child’s first experience with death, he or she might have lots of questions about dying. He or she might also be worried that this might happened to someone else they love.

Like adults, children need to work through their grief, but most likely will bounce back soon enough. If you find your child is struggling, it might be a good idea to engage a therapist for additional grief support - for yourself and for your child.

Need a little help supporting your child through his or her pet loss experience. Try this free printable which walks you through how to build your network of support so that you can get the kinds of assistance you need.



Images: Kristina M M, Patrick Fore

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Health Disclaimer: I’m passionate about wellbeing and health but I’m not a medical professional, nor am I a licensed therapist. Any content you read on this site is intended for inspiration and for information only – by not means am I providing medical advice. Please consult your certified professional for personalized recommendations on the mental health or physical health ideas I write about.