Helping Children Heal From The Loss Of A Pet

The loss of a beloved pet is an experience from which any parent would want to shield their child.  It is a fact that animals live shorter lives than humans and when we have pets we have to accept the fact that they will pass on before we will.

Even though we understand that fact rationally, when facing the loss head on, both adults and children grieve as they would for the loss of any loved one.

Children, however, may need extra support from parents and teachers in order to deal with the loss of a pet. There are several things parents can do support and help their child heal after the death of a pet.

  • Acknowledge the loss and your feelings about it.Letting your child see you grieve would help them to see that it is okay to feel sad about losing their pet.  Many parents feel they shouldn’t let their kids see them cry; yet, by openly expressing your grief, you are making those feeling more acceptable in the child’s mind.  This is not to say that parents should emotionally fall to pieces in front of their child as it might frighten the child.  But, by letting children see you grieve, it would open dialogue as well as validate the child’s feelings by seeing their parents also sad about the loss of the family pet.
  • sadnessDo not refer to euthanasia as “putting the pet to sleep.”  While some children are too young to completely grasp the idea of euthanasia, they do understand going to sleep.  Parents must be careful with the words they use regarding the euthanasia.  If you tell your child that the pet was “put to sleep”, don’t be surprised if the child becomes anxious or frightened if you use the same terminology regarding them or a sibling later.  Children are very concrete thinkers.  By telling them the pet is “asleep”, they may expect it to wake up later and will be confused when that doesn’t happen.  An age-appropriate explanation as to what happened to the pet is the best way to begin to introduce the idea of death to your child.
  • Let children grieve in their own way.  Just like adults, children grieve in their own way.  Children may want to draw pictures of their pet or keep something that was special to their pet as a remembrance.  Other children might not want to talk about the pet immediately after it passes, avoiding discussions about or physical remembrances of the pet.  Some children may feel guilty about a time when they were “mean” to the pet or didn’t play with the pet instead of playing with their friends.  There is no right or wrong way to grieve; yet parents need to closely monitor their child’s grieving process and offer support and reassurance.  Should it seem that the child is grieving for an extended period of time or are in deep grief, it would be time to consult the child’s pediatrician for assistance.
  • Notify teachers, coaches, and other caregivers about the loss.  Those who work closely with you child need to be notified about the loss and how your child is dealing with it.  Let them know that the child may seem sad or withdrawn as well as enlisting their help in supporting the child and monitoring the grieving process.  Do not, however, let your child use the grieving process as an avoidance technique or as a means to get out of unpleasant tasks.  Keeping their schedules as normal as possible will help them to feel secure and move through the grief process more smoothly and quickly.
  • Do not immediately get a new pet.  Yes, the house will seem empty without your pet and your child may immediately being asking about getting a new pet.  However, a new pet will not replace the old pet and children need to understand this for later, more significant deaths they will have to face.  It would be better to wait, explaining to the child that is wouldn’t be fair to the new pet to bring it into a home that would expect it to be exactly like the old pet.  Many professionals recommend waiting between six months and a year before considering bringing a new pet into the home.

The death of a pet is one of the first experiences many children have with a death that hits them close to home.  Parents need to provide support and comfort as well as letting their child see that they are grieving too.  It is impossible for parents to shield children from death but they can help their child understand that it is a natural occurrence and come to terms with it.  As the family works through its grief and heals, they will eventually be ready to open their home and hearts to a new pet.