Losing a pet is hard enough for us adults, but for a child, losing their best friend, confidante and partner in crime can feel devastating. Parents already coming to terms with their own loss are called upon to comfort, advise and encourage their children through the healing process, and this can add extra stresses at an impossibly difficult time. Equally, the very process of sharing your feelings and talking about positive steps forward, as you help your child come to terms with his or her grief, can be beneficial for you too.
Clearly everybody’s reaction to the loss of a pet is different, depending both on the circumstances of the loss as well as on the personality, age and situation of the carer. Yet at their varying stages of development and maturity, helping children deal with grief will require a particular, and more predictable, approach, according to their age.
The following guidelines are from the Association of Pet Loss and Bereavement:
At this age children should be told the pet has died and will not return. It is important to reassure them that they did not do or say anything to cause the death. It is good to cry and show your own feelings of grief, but these must be controlled and perceived as a normal response to the loss of a loved one. Extra reassurance, as well as maintaining usual routines will help. Any new pet will usually be accepted very easily.
4-6 year olds:
There is now some understanding of death, but the permanence of it may not be grasped. Manifestations of grief may include bowel or bladder disturbances as well as a change in playing, eating and sleeping habits. Through ‘little and often’ discussions, allow the child to express feelings and concerns. Give extra reassurance. Drawing pictures and writing stories about their loss may be helpful, and it’s recommended that you include the child in any funeral arrangements.
7-9 year olds:
Children in this age group know that death is irreversible. They do not normally think this might happen to them, but they may be concerned about the death of their parents. They are very curious and may ask questions that appear morbid – this is natural and is best approached frankly and honestly. Grief may manifest as problems at school, anti-social behaviour, aggression, withdrawal and clingy behaviour – once again, it’s important to reassure the child that the death was not their fault.
10-11 year olds:
Now children are usually able to understand that death is natural, inevitable and happens to all living things. They often react in a manner very similar to adults, using their parent’s attitude as their model. A pet’s death can trigger memories of previous losses of any kind, and this should always be open for discussion.
Whilst teenagers react similarly to adults, the typical adolescent span of expression can range from apparent total lack of concern to hyper-emotional. Peer approval is very important – if friends are supportive, it is much easier for them to deal with a loss.
The loss of a family pet at this age can be particularly hard. There may be feelings of guilt for abandoning the pet when leaving home for college, work or marriage, especially where there has been a very close relationship since early childhood. Distance may also make returning home difficult, which can add an extra sense of guilt.
Many books have been written to help children come to terms with the loss of their pet, and you may find it useful to read these together with young children.
You can find a list of our suggestions on our main site, via this link.
Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support
Please note: The Ralph Site is not affiliated with the third-party organisations in any of the links shared here, and the views, ideas and suggestions expressed in this and other blogs are simply shared with the intention of helping you, our friends, take care of the special animals in your lives.