Pets are our children’s companions, playmates, exercise motivators, and a means by which children learn responsibility and experience a source of comfort when no words are needed. The love of a pet is an initial foundation for the child’s experience of unconditional, unselfish love.
Grieving the loss of a pet is painful for children and adults, but it is a normal and necessary process. Depending on their age, children have varying degrees of understanding about death; very young children (under five) don’t have a grasp of its permanence and may even expect Fluffy to return from his hiding spot. At any age, though, our children take their cues from our reactions. If you have a tendency to avoid grief and deny that you’re very upset too, it makes the child question his view of reality (and his right to have and express sad emotions).
It is natural to want to comfort and distract a child who is sad and distressed, but this short-circuits the natural process of expressing sadness and loss. Our children need to learn that all feelings are a part of life, and if we want them to enjoy the positive ones, we cannot shield them from the negative ones. Dealing with the loss of a pet is an important life lesson that will be a template for how the child deals with loss later in life. Every family’s relationship with pets is unique, but here are other facts to consider when the beloved pet passes away.
- Tell your child as much about your pet’s condition as he can handle. Too much information can be as confusing as no information at all. Deal with his reaction on his level, not yours.
- Avoid using clichés such as, “Riddle was sick, so the doctor put him to sleep.” Young children especially take words literally and may then worry about “going to sleep.” They may think, “If I get sick, will I die too?” Don’t try to spare your child the topic of death by saying, “Freckles ran away,” or “We took him to a farm where he can run around more.” Either way, the child has lost his cat or dog, and it can be more agonizing to think that his pet is “out there” somewhere. Be truthful about what happened.
- Bring the opportunity to share feelings out in the open: “I feel so sad that Janie doesn’t greet us at the door when we come home.” Allow your child to express sadness, confusion, and anger. Grief doesn’t have a “statute of limitations” and there is no time table of how long it “should” take to mourn the loss of a pet.
- Don’t assume that your child isn’t grieving just because there are no outward signs. They are quick to pick up on social cues, such as “It was just a cat…get over it!” They do not want to be made fun of.
- Be aware that the loss of a pet can trigger reactions from previous losses, such as moving away from a home, being separated from friends, or a divorce. Allow your child to speak about this, instead of saying, “That was a long time ago, I thought we were all done with that!”
- Don’t try to replace the pet. Your child’s pet was unique and irreplaceable, and if another one is presented too soon, the child could compare it to the lost pet, act indifferent/detached, and withdraw from it. He may fear the pain that comes from bonding with a new pet, if the first loss has not been addressed.
- DO let teachers and caregivers know about the loss, so they can be prepared for mood changes in your child and be prepared to listen.
- Help your child create a special ritual or ceremony to honor the pet. A poem or story about the pet is a way of holding on to the good memories while letting go of the pet that was ill. Plant flowers and contribute food for an animal shelter; this helps with active grief and honors life.
By Dr. Margaret Sartori, PhD, Associated Faculty at MSP