The death of a pet is often the first experience a child has with death. Understanding the unique ways children see their pets and respond to their death can help parents facilitate the grieving process.
Joshua Russell, an assistant professor of environmental science at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, who has studied the effects of pet death on children, explained that, for many of them, pets are more than just animals. "Many children describe their pets as siblings or best friends with whom they have strong connections," he said.
In a study of 12 children whose ages range between 6 and 13 years and who had lost a pet, published in the Environmental Education Research magazine, Russell found that even years after the pet's death, some children still described the loss as "the worst day of my life". He also discovered that children come up with unique ways to rationalize the death of their pet and that the way a pet dies influences how children handle grief.
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Like adults, children tend to more easily accept the death of their pet when expected. For example, the children in the study were less affected when they knew in advance that the animal would have a short life. They seemed to know that a fish or a hamster, for example, would not live as long as a dog or cat. When an animal was sick, they generally accepted that euthanasia relieved the suffering of the pet. If an animal has a terminal illness, parents can help prepare the child by talking about the imminent loss, as well as the feelings of sadness it will evoke.
However, when pets die tragically and unexpectedly, the loss is more difficult for the child. “When a pet dies suddenly, it emphasizes how unpredictable the world is. He tells children that the people and animals they love can die without warning, ”said Abigail Marks, a San Francisco clinical psychologist specializing in child grieving.
Of course, the child's age and level of development affect how he understands the death and pain of a child is notorious in ways very different from that of an adult. Children do not always cry or show emotion immediately. But this does not mean that they are not deeply affected by the loss.
"Children under five will have a hard time understanding that the pet is gone forever because it is difficult for them to grasp the concept of death," said Jessica Harvey, a San Francisco psychotherapist who specializes in grieving over the death of pets.
One way young children can express their grief is through play. After the loss of a pet, they can pretend, for example, that a cat or a stuffed dog got sick and died. Parents can help their children through the grieving process by actively participating in this type of imaginary games.
Reading books about the death of age-appropriate pets can also be useful. Goodbye, Brecken David Lupton, is an example of reading for children between 4 and 8 years.
School-age children often have questions about the animal's death, and the dialogue that ensues from them can open broader conversations about love, loss and what happens after death. When talking with a school-age child about the death of a pet, Marks recommends being honest about what happened. Doing so lets the child know that it is not a taboo to talk about death or painful feelings, which can lay the groundwork for processing other types of losses in the future. Parents must also validate any emotion that arises when the child is in mourning.
Dr. Marks said that a child's pain would come and go, she could cry for a minute and then play again or talk about other things the next minute. Parents should be more worried if a child has nightmares, increased anxiety or difficulty sleeping. If those symptoms persist, psychological counseling can help.
Marks said it is also important for parents to follow their child's conversation thread. "If they are asking about the details of the pet's death, it is a sign that they want to talk about it," he said. "They are looking for your comfort."
For many children, it is also important to have a farewell ritual. "Rituals around death are some of the most significant ways we have to recognize someone's life, but these ceremonies are not socially defined for the death of pets," said Marks. Families can create their own rituals, such as having a small funeral, scattering the pet's ashes, planting a tree to remember it, or creating a photo album.
"That is a way to process the loss and honor the place the pet had in your family," Marks said.
Share the news and the pain
One of the hardest parts of losing a pet can be giving bad news to children. Try to do it in a place where you are alone, where you feel safe and comfortable, and cannot easily get distracted.
Just as you would with any complicated subject, try to find out how much information your children need to hear according to their age, maturity level and life experience.
If your pet is very old or has a persistent disease, consider talking to children before they die. If you must sacrifice your pet, you may want to explain the following:
- veterinarians have done their best
- the pet will never get better
- It is the most compassionate way to relieve pet pain
- the pet will die in peace, without feeling pain or fear
Your child's age, maturity level and the questions you ask will help you determine if it is better to offer a clear and simple explanation of what will happen. If you decide to offer an explanation, you can use words like "death" and "die" or say something like: "The veterinarian will give our pet an injection that will first sleep it and then make your heart stop beating." Many children want to be able to say goodbye before and some may be adult and emotionally mature enough to stay with the pet during the process.
If you must sacrifice your pet, be careful to say that the animal is going to "sleep" or that "they are going to put it to sleep." Young children often interpret this literally and this will cause them to have erroneous and frightening concepts about sleep or surgeries and anesthesia.
If the pet's death is more abrupt, calmly explain what happened. Be brief and allow your child to ask questions that will guide you to find out how much information you should provide.
Stick to the truth
Do not try to sweeten what happened by resorting to a lie. It is not a good idea to tell a child "Buster got away" or "Max went on a trip". This probably does not relieve your sadness about losing your pet and, if at some point the truth arises, your child will probably get angry because you lied to him.
If you ask what happens to a pet when it dies, try to draw on its own understanding of death, which includes, if appropriate, the point of view of your faith. And since none of us really knows, an honest "I don't know" can be an appropriate answer. It is not bad to tell children that death is a mystery.
Help your child cope with the situation
Like any other person facing a loss, children often feel a variety of emotions, in addition to sadness, after the death of a pet. They may feel lonely, feel angry if the pet was sacrificed, frustration because it was not possible to cure the pet or blame for the times when they were bad and did not take care of the pet as promised.
Help children understand that it is natural to feel all those emotions, that it is not bad not to want to talk about them at first and that you will be there when they are ready to speak.
Do not feel obliged to hide your sadness for the loss of a pet. If you show your feelings and talk about it openly, you will be giving an example to your children. You show that it's okay to feel sad when losing a loved one, talk about feelings and cry when you're sad. And for children, it is comforting to know that they are not the only ones who are sad. Share stories about the pets you had (and lost) when you were little and how difficult it was to say goodbye.
Once the impact of the news has passed, it is important that you help your child get ahead.
It may be useful to find special ways to remember a pet. You could perform a ceremony to bury your pet or simply share memories or good times they shared. Write a prayer together or express what the pet meant for each family member. Share stories about your pet's adventures or funny moments. Hug a lot and with love. You could also do a project, such as a photo notebook.
Remember that grieving for the loss of a pet, especially for a child, is similar to grieving for a person. For children, losing a pet that gave them love and companionship can be much more difficult than losing a distant relative. You may have to explain that to friends, family and others who do not have pets or cannot understand it.
Perhaps, the most important thing is to talk about your pet frequently and with love. Let your child know that while the pain will eventually pass, your pet's good memories will remain forever. When the time is right, you may consider adopting a new pet, not as a replacement but as a way to welcome another animal friend in the family.
Tips to help the child cope with the death of his pet
For children, pets are more than animals: they are their best friends and an integral part of their family. The little ones often find in their pet the company and the comfort they need in moments where they feel sadness, lack of attention, when they are sick, etc. That is, pets are able to give children many moments of joy.
Unfortunately, nothing is forever and at some point in life they will feel pain for their loss due to the animal's longevity or illness. This moment can be very difficult for the little ones. How can we help overcome the death of your pet?
Tips to help the child overcome the death of his pet
The parents' desire is to protect their children from painful experiences, but it is not always possible. The death of the pet can be a traumatic moment for the child. It may be the first time the child faces death and the loss of a loved one. Therefore, adults should be sensitive when facing this situation with them because with our support in the grieving process children can learn to face other losses they have in their lives.
Adults should help the child accept that death with love and patience. Comfort him and give him all the love he needs and also:
- The most important thing is the child's age. The smaller the children, the less they will understand what has happened. Between 3 and 5 years, they do not understand what death means and think that the event will be temporary and that the animal will return. Between 6 and 8 years approximately, they already understand this situation and the consequences that it entails. About 10 years understand death as a completely irreversible fact. Thus, it will be important to adapt the speech but without lying at any time and making it clear to the child that if the pet will not return.
- Be clear and sincere. Although the truth is sad, it must be told clearly, not to confuse him. Children accept this type of experience better when they are given sincere explanations, adapted to their level of understanding and allowed to express their pain. Giving vague answers, avoiding answering, or telling them “white lies” such as telling them that the pet “is sleeping” only generates confusion in the little ones and can be counterproductive.
- Let the child express his feelings. It is normal for you to miss your pet, to feel angry or jealous for your friends' pets, it is part of the duel you have to go through.
- Remember the pet. In moments of nostalgia it is good to talk about the pet. Talk about the moments lived with her.
- Go preparing for the event. If adults know that the animal will die in a short time due to advanced age or illness, it is good to discuss the fact with children, so they can express their feelings and say goodbye to the pet.
- It is not advisable to replace the animal right away. The child must grieve for a few days. The child will be the one who will say when he feels like starting another relationship with a new pet.