On the main Ralph Site, there’s information about helping children of all ages cope with the loss of a pet. In this week’s blog though, we’d like to talk a bit more about helping teens cope with pet bereavement.
Why focus on teens, in particular?
Pets often play a very specific role for teenagers.
Pets are a link to childhood for teens
If you’ve had your pet for a long time, your teen may not know or remember life without them. As long as your teen has existed, your pet has been there too, as much a part of the fabric of life as parents, siblings and grandparents.
This is especially important during the transition from childhood into adulthood when teenagers live through a period of constant change. This includes their schools, relationships, emotions and bodies.
In the middle of all of this, a pet is a consistent, non-judgmental presence. They’re a link back to childhood but they’re firmly rooted in the present too.
A pet doesn’t care how your teen is doing at school or whether they’re developing acne, falling in love for the first time or revising for exams. They don’t ask questions at the end of a long school day.
To your teen, these qualities will sometimes make a pet the most appealing member of the family.
So when a pet dies, it’s understandable that this can have a specific significance for a teenager.
Your grieving teen
For many parents, knowing how to best support a grieving teenager can be challenging. Some teens show a total lack of concern about a pet who has died (at least, on the surface) while others exhibit extreme reactions.
Some teens want to talk about their grief, while others find talking difficult.
As we know from our own experiences as adults, grief can present itself in a multitude of ways from tears and sadness to anger and frustration, and most emotions in between.
It can be especially hard to know how to support a teen when you’re grieving too. This can make emotions run high, especially if you and your teen feel angry at the same time or if you’re experiencing your grief in very different ways.
To help you, we’ve put together a list of pointers for helping your teen cope with the death of a pet.
Seven ways you can help
1. Respect your teen’s need to talk to their friends
Your teen may prefer to talk to their friends about their bereavement.
Peers play a big role in the emotional and social development of teenagers and you may not be the first person they choose to talk to. They may also worry about upsetting you by sharing their feelings.
It’s important to accept that your son or daughter may be more comfortable talking to their friends. But it’s equally important to let them know that you’re there if they need you.
2. Be open about your own grief
As a parent or carer of a teen, your first inclination may be that you should hide your own sadness to protect them.
In actual fact, letting your teen see that you’re grieving can be incredibly supportive and empowering. It lets the young person know that their feelings are natural, normal and that there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
You can also show that grief isn’t an event but a process and that there will be good and bad days.
3. Validate your teen’s feelings
As with anyone who’s grieving, it’s important to validate your teen’s feelings, whether or not they reflect your own. Your teen is a person in their own right and the relationship they had with your pet is unique to them.
Let them know that you recognise that they’re going through a difficult experience. Name any feelings you see. Recognise how much they miss their pet.
You don’t need to offer solutions but they will appreciate an accepting presence (even if they don’t tell you!)
4. Give your teen time
When we see someone we love suffering, it can be unbearable. In the case of pet bereavement, parents often feel that they can live with their own grief but that they just want their teen to move on and feel better.
Sadly, grief can’t be rushed.
Let your teen know that there is no time limit on grief. This will help them in the face of unhelpful comments from other people such as, “Are you still upset about your cat?” or “It’s only a dog”.
One of the best things we can do for anyone who is grieving is to let them feel and talk about their bereavement without restrictions.
5. Suggest ways your teen can memorialise your pet
Some people, teens or otherwise, find it comforting to memorialise a lost pet. This can be a great way to bring happy memories into focus.
You could ask your teen whether they would like to make a photo book, create a piece of artwork, plant some flowers or even make a donation to an animal charity in memory of their lost friend.
If it’s not something they want to do for themselves, you might be able to encourage them to help you.
6. Enlist help from your teen’s wider circle
If your son or daughter is having a tough time due to their grief, it’s a good idea to let other important people in their wider circle know what’s going on. This might be your teen’s class tutor, a trusted teacher or the group leader of their favourite activity.
7. Seek professional help, if necessary
Sometimes people need professional support to cope with bereavement. If you’re worried that your teen is really struggling then you might want to talk to them about phoning a pet bereavement helpline or seeing a counsellor.
Let your teen know that asking for help from a counsellor for emotional pain is just as important as seeing a doctor when our bodies are hurt.
Compassion and comfort
One of the most important things we can do for any teen who is grieving is to model compassion in how we treat them, ourselves and other bereaved family members when a pet dies.
Pets are so special because they embody acceptance, a quality that every teenager needs in their life. If we can show acceptance too, we can provide a safe space for our teens to learn how to live with grief.
You and your teen are not alone.
Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team,
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support