Helping Children Cope with the Death of a Pet
The death of a pet is typically the first death that a child experiences in his/her life, and therefore it offers an excellent opportunity to teach children about loss and grief.
Children's grief following the death of a pet is likely to be very different than the grief of adults, and this is important to know. They are likely to grieve "in pieces," devastated one minute and seemingly fine the next. The emotions of grief can be unfamiliar and overwhelming to children, and they may lack the verbal skills to express what they are feeling. Therefore, a child's grief will often be seen in his/her behavior and play activities.
Children can be expected to understand the loss differently based on their developmental stages, and therefore it is normal for a child's grief reaction to "look" different than a sibling (or adult). It is important not to worry if a child seems unaffected by the death of a pet – the meaning children assign to a death can be quite different than an adult's, and therefore to some children the death is no more tragic than if the dog or cat has gone on vacation!
If a child does seem impacted by the loss of a pet, these are things that parents and other caregivers can do to help.
Reading to children about death and grief is an excellent way to convey information, and invite conversation. There are many excellent books for children about grief and the death of a pet, but my favorite is "When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death" by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown.
HonestyExplain in developmentally appropriate terms what has happened to cause the animal to die. Attempts to "protect" children by telling partial truths only raises their anxiety. Answers questions honestly, and with direct, concrete language. For example, explain that the animal has died instead of saying that s/he "passed away" or has "gone to sleep."
Be careful about saying that the pet got sick and died – imagine what the child will be thinking the next time she gets sick! Instead, talk about how the sickness was very bad and could not be fixed, which is different from when the child gets sick.
Think carefully about the words used to explain death of a pet to children.
The death of a pet can bring changes to the life of a child; minimizing additional changes is very helpful. As much as possible, regular routines should be maintained because stability and routine help children adjust to the loss of a loved one – human and animal.
Children need help remembering their pet, and this will be especially important as they grow up and lose the memories they have now. Keep a journal of their memories, make scrapbook pages about the things they did with their pet, or videotape the children talking about the pet who died. Keep photos of the pet who died around the house, and speak of him/her often.
Share the Loss
It is appropriate and helpful for children to see the grief of adults. Sharing feelings of grief with children gives them permission to share their own feelings, and also provides an opportunity for adults to serve as role models for grieving children.
Encourage (but don't force) conversationChildren typically enjoy talking about the animal who died, and it is important for adults to invite such conversations. Sometimes children will avoid mentioning the pet because they are worried about causing sad feelings. Adults can help a child to feel more open about talking by explaining that the sad feelings have been caused by the death and not by talking about the animal.
It can be very helpful to some children to plan and implement a Memorial Service for a pet. Children have wonderful imaginations and ideas, and allowing them to conduct a Memorial Service for a pet not only honors the pet, but also includes the child(ren) in an important and developmentally appropriate way.