Children have the capacity to feel things very deeply. When they’re joyful, it’s as if there’s a bottomless well of goodness. When they’re scared, their fear can be all-consuming. But when they’re heart-broken over the death of a pet, it can feel like the end of the world.
Without a doubt, kids form very strong attachments to family pets, and this is often their first experience with death. Understandably, they’ll require lots of help dealing with pet loss and moving through the stages of grief.
It’s delightful growing up alongside a furry best friend. There’s always someone around to play, snuggle, and share secrets with, not to mention pets make enthusiastic partners in crime. In short, pets make kids feel less alone in an often confusing world. Their love is straightforward and unconditional, and they’re always there when a child needs a friend.
Some kids have time to process when their pet is sick or old, and they know they’ll have to say goodbye to their pet at some point in the near future. Others are forced into the moment after a terrible emergency or accident. No matter the situation, pet loss is emotionally taxing, and kids need the following to get through the process:
- Time (depending on the child’s age, development, and level of attachment, they may need anywhere from a few weeks to several months – most kids will never forget)
- Constant love, attention, and compassion
- Strong role modeling (adults must learn how to grieve in order to teach their children)
How to Prepare
Kids under the age of three often don’t have a concrete understanding of death. The idea should be presented in broad terms. Be patient when they ask repeatedly for more information. It’s not recommended to say their pet “went to sleep,” as this can create difficulties for them at night.
Children of kindergarten age might see death as temporary and need support as they work out the fact they’ll never see, touch, or hear their pet again. Reassure them that everybody else is okay; be prepared to see anger, as well.
Older kids may have a more realistic perception of death, but that doesn’t stop them from displaying anger, aggression, withdrawal, or clingy behaviors. They need to hear that death is a natural, irreversible process that happens to all living things.
At any age if the loss of a pet is impacting your child’s health and well being, turning to grief counseling may be an option. Having a safe environment to communicate feelings may help them through the difficult separation.
Older Kids and Pet Loss
In older children, you may observe reactions that vary from hyper-emotional to a surprising lack of interest. This is because older kids can feel conflicted about needing emotional support; however, it’s important to maintain open lines of communication. They need to see that adults are equally saddened by pet loss, and that it’s okay to feel and express their grief.
Mourning the Loss of a Best Friend
Drawing pictures of a pet can really help kids (and adults) cope with pet loss. Looking at photographs and reminiscing together as a family is also helpful.
You may want to consider holding a small ceremony for your pet as a way to offer closure for children. Plant something special over your pet’s grave or memorialize them with a handmade stone. If cremation was chosen, find a place in your home to store or display their ashes (perhaps a favorite area or room in the house).
Always Here for You
Sometimes, it can feel as though pet loss and grief has overtaken a home. To support children throughout the process, be careful not to rush their emotional timeline. Allow them to set the pace, and never tell a child to “get over it” or criticize their fears. Be open in your own grief, and they’ll follow suit.
Although we do not offer grief counseling at our hospital, there are many resources online to turn to. We recommend Lap of Love, and NC State Veterinary Hospital for more direction and support during this difficult transition.