Helping Children Cope With Pet Loss

Pet LossDeath and dying are two of the hardest facts of life to explain to children. It is natural to want to shield children from the pain of loss, however we cannot protect them from death and grief and they respond best to honesty and compassion. This is often their first experience with death, and is an opportunity to help them learn how to grieve in a healthy, productive, and healing way. How we handle this event can have a far-reaching impact on our children's understanding of death and dying.

When a child experiences the death of a beloved pet, he or she may experience emotional reactions that can be painful and frightening. Actions that you can take to help children experience those reactions as healthy events include:

  1. Understanding
  2. Grieving
  3. Memorializing

Here are several ways to help your child achieve these tasks:

First, find a quiet place where you can talk without interruption. Tell the child simply that their pet has died and what caused the death. If necessary, explain what the word "dead" means. Avoid overloading your children with details.

Answer all questions truthfully in words they can understand. Inconsistent or incomplete answers may leave the child more unsettled than the truth itself.

Encourage expression of feelings. Children will model their parents' behaviors. Try drawing, writing, and talking together about the pet.

Avoid euphemisms. Avoid terms like "gone away", "put to sleep", "passed on", and "lost". A child could misunderstand the common phrase "put to sleep", indicating the adult's denial of death, and develop a terror of bedtime. Suggesting to a child that "God has taken" the pet may create conflict in the child, who could become angry at the higher power for cruelty toward a pet and the child. Instead, simple and accurate terms such as "dead" and "stopped breathing", establishes that the body is no longer alive biologically.

Share your beliefs, hopes, and faiths about the soul or spirit of pets. Depending on your own personal beliefs, you may say "The spirit of our special pet is with God in Heaven", "the spirit is the warm feeling of love in our hearts", or "the spirit is in nature".

A funeral, memorial service, burial, or placement of ashes encourages healthy closure to the loss process.

Encourage children to express their grief by drawing pictures of their pet, and sharing what the pictures mean to them. Always listen to what they have to say, and praise them for their thoughts. If a child would like the picture put in his/her room, then honor that wish. It could keep the pet closer to the child at bedtime until the grief has subsided.

Make a scrapbook or log with photos as well as drawn pictures of the pet and family members. Write memories beneath or beside them. Humorous instances should be included on the pages - which can help develop associations with happiness each time the book is opened. Other small items such as a dog tag, or small toy, can be included, as well as sympathy cards, and letters. You can find some very nice packages on the market for making scrapbooks.

If a pet has been cremated, a special place can be arranged in the home for the urn - as well as just a few pictures and mementos of the pet. Some people keep those things on the mantle of a fireplace, or utilize a special part of a bookshelf. In choosing and designing this, make sure that children are allowed to participate in the decision-making process. But wherever that place of honor is, it is important that it never be turned into some kind of shrine to the pet's memory. That can be destructive to the bereavement and healing.

If the ashes are to be scattered let the child feel he or she was part of the decision-making. It will be more meaningful if this is done at a place where the pet loved to go. Ask for suggestions about this. It is important that a child be made to feel that his or her thoughts and feelings are important to you.

If a pet is to be buried, wrap the body in a shroud or casket that (preferably) a family member has made. That can also have an effect of closer bonding with the parents and family.

Planting a living memorial, such as a tree or bush in memory of a pet, can feel very satisfying. Making a small flower bed in a spot that was favored by the pet, can also be a fine memorial that brings some closure to the grief.

Some people have a ritual of lighting candles on anniversaries, and reminiscing about their life with their pets. This offers them a special sense of comfort and respect. Let the children participate in this.

It is good to invite friends to talk about their own positive experiences regarding the death of a beloved pet. It is usually a bittersweet time of laughing and crying with one another, but that is part of the healing process. It is good for children to learn about the joys that pets bring into other people's lives. An exchange of memories helps to broaden their personal perspective of the human/animal bond, and their role in this.

A child's ability to understand what death means depends on his/her level of emotional and cognitive development. The general guideline of how children of various ages perceive death and dying is as follows:

Two- and Three-Year-Olds: Children this age typically have no understanding of death. They often consider it a form of sleep. They should be told that their pet has died and will not return. Common reactions to think include temporary loss of speech and generalized distress. The child should be reassured that the pet's failure to return is unrelated to anything the child may have said or done.

Four-, Five-, and Six-Year-Olds: Children in this age range typically have some understanding of death but in a way that related to a continued existence. The pet may be considered to be living underground while continuing to eat, breath, and play. Alternatively, it may be considered to be asleep. A return to life may be expected if the child views death as temporary. These children often feel that any anger they may have had toward the pet may be responsible for its death. This view should be refuted because they may also translate this belief to death of family members in the past. Some children also see death as contagious and begin to fear that their own death (or the death of others) is imminent. They should be reassured that their death is not likely. Manifestations of grief often take the form of disturbances in bladder and bowel control, eating, and sleeping. This is best managed by parent-child discussions that allow the child to express feelings and concerns. Several brief discussions are generally more productive than one or two prolonged sessions.

Seven-, Eight-, and Nine-Year-Olds: The irreversibility of death becomes real to these children. They usually do not personalize death, thinking it cannot happen to them. However, some children may develop concerns about the death of their parents. They may become very curious about death and its implications. Parents should be ready to respond frankly and honestly to questions that may arise. Several manifestations of grief may occur in these children, including development of school problems, learning problems, antisocial behavior, hypochondriacally concerns, or aggression. Additionally, withdrawal, over-attentiveness, or clinging behavior may be seen. Based on grief reactions of parents or siblings, it is likely that these symptoms may not occur immediately but several weeks or months later.

Adolescents: Adolescents generally understand that all living things will eventually die, and that death is total. They may go through the normal stages of grief that grownups do: denial, bargaining, anger, guilt, depression, and acceptance. Although this age group often reacts similarly to adults, many adolescents exhibit various forms of denial. This usually takes the form of lack of emotional display. Consequently, these young people may be experiencing sincere grief without any outward emotional manifestations.

Helping Children Cope With Pet LossSuggested books especially for children:

  • "For Every Dog an Angel" or "For Every Cat an Angel" by Christine Davis
  • "Mr. Roger's First Experience: When a Pet Dies" by Fred Rogers
  • "Dog Heaven" or "Cat Heaven" by Cynthia Rylant
  • "The Tenth Good Things about Barney" by J. Viorst
  • "Oh, Where Has my Pet Gone? A Pet Loss Memory Book, Ages 3-103" by Wayzata, Minn, and Libby
  • "Charlotte's Web" by E.B. White
  • "I'll Always Love You" by H. Wilhem

<<Back to Pet Loss Resources Page