Grief upon the loss of a pet is a normal response, and a very individual one. For some people, grieving for a pet who has died may be a more difficult process than grieving for a human loved one. When a child is involved, you want to do everything you can to help them through their grief.
Always be honest regarding the death of a pet. You do not have to discuss all the details, but the child needs to understand what is going on. A child will find out the truth in the end and may become less trusting of the parent, or feel betrayed if not told the truth. The child should be able to participate in the arrangements. If the pet is to be buried, the child should always be given the option to be there. Burying the pet without the child’s knowledge can, again, make the entire grieving process more difficult for the child, and make the child less trusting of his parents at a time when he really needs them.
If at all possible, prepare the child ahead of time for the death. Mementos can be very important for children, and they may want some pictures of them and the pet, a plaster cast of the pet’s foot, etc.
Many factors can contribute to how a child will feel when their pet dies. The child’s age and maturity are important factors. As with older people, the relationship the child had with the pet, the circumstances of the pet’s death, and other events or losses the child has experienced will influence the grieving process. The ability of the parents and others to provide support will also play an important role in helping the child work through the grief.
Some generalities on how children may respond differently to the loss of a pet, as related to age are discussed below.
Infants and Children up to two years: Infants and very young children may not understand the death of a pet, but they are very aware of the tension and change in emotional state of those around them. Reassuring them by hugging and holding them, and keeping the household routine as normal as possible will help.
Toddlers and Pre-school Children: In general, children under 7 years of age do not understand that death is permanent. They will need help in understanding the pet will not wake up or come home. Do not try to hide a pet’s illness or death from a child. They are often the first to sense that something is wrong. Trying to isolate them from a pet’s death may cause them to feel abandonment or betrayal, and takes away their right to say good-bye. Help them to know it is okay to ask questions (they usually have many) and feel sad. Even children at the age of two can experience feelings of grief and sorrow. Underplaying the significance of a pet’s death may result in a child feeling no one would care if she, too, died.
School-age children: Children between the ages of 7 and 12 can understand the permanence of death. They may ask many questions about how and why the pet died. Children over 12 years of age (adolescents) may have a very difficult time recovering from grief and may not be open about how much emotional pain they are experiencing. Adolescents should not be put in the position of having to take on extra responsibilities such as caring for siblings during this time of crisis.
Euthanasia: Euthanizing a pet can result in considerable confusion for a young child. In explaining euthanasia, simply explain that a painless injection of a powerful medication is given to the pet, which allows the pet to die and not suffer. In general, children under the age of eight are too young to be present when their pet is euthanized. If a child is going to be present at a euthanasia, it is best to have a pre-euthanasia session with the veterinarian to explain what will happen. At this point, it can be determined if it is better for the child not to be present during the euthanasia, but instead, to be invited into the room immediately afterwards. The words ‘put to sleep’ or ‘went away’ should not be used with young children, since it may cause them to feel even more confused. They may fear falling asleep themselves, because they think they may not wake up. Some children become terrified if they are told they are going to be ‘put to sleep’ before surgery. Or they may feel abandoned and that their pet did not love them and therefore ran away.
If financial considerations played a role in the decision to euthanize a pet, the child may believe her parents would not be able to take care of her if she became ill. In these situations, reassure the child that she will always be cared for. The child should also be told that the injection the pet received is not the same as what she receives at the pediatrician.
Expressing feelings: Young children are less able to express their feelings in words and are more likely to ‘act out’ what they feel. They may show anger or aggression in various situations that do not seem connected to the animal’s death. They may start displaying regressive behavior such as bed-wetting and thumb-sucking. They may experience separation anxiety or complain about not feeling well. Activities such as those described above may help the child work through their feelings. Children of this age may think it was something they did or thought that caused their pet to die, and blame themselves. Even if they do not express it, it is often helpful to reassure the child that he/she was not responsible for the death of the pet.
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