Helping children cope with the death of a beloved pet
Death is a big subject for children to grasp. Knowing when it is the right time to tell kids about death can be very difficult. Parents often wait until a pet dies to help explain death to children, as this can help them to prepare for when a grandparent or someone else close to them passes away.
Children have their unique needs when it comes to grief. They might not be able to express or modulate their emotions in the same way as adults do. So it’s down to the adults to help guide them through the grieving process.
If your child has recently lost a beloved pet, you may need to give them extra time and support to help them understand what has happened and then help them to move forward. In this guide, we will explore some of the most important steps to consider when helping a child get over the loss of their pet.
How do children show their grief?
Children express their grief in very different ways to adults. They might become reclusive and shy or they might lash out and be angry. Mood swings are common and they might have trouble concentrating in school.
Often, behavioural problems are the result of not having the space to properly explore their feelings. They might also have questions about the death of their pet that they don’t feel comfortable asking. Giving children the space to explore their feelings and ask questions is essential to their grieving process.
Children often don’t have the vocabulary to express what they are feeling. Helping them to understand their emotions is therefore essential to help them grieve. Talking about death and what this means can allow them to explore these feelings and understand them better.
What can you do to help a child cope with loss?
Above all else, children need patience and understanding when going through something like the loss of a pet. It might seem like a small event to you, but your child was likely very attached to their pet and they will feel the loss acutely.
There are a few simple things you can do to help them cope with this loss:
Share the news carefully
How you break the news to your child will have a big impact on how they handle it. Let them know earlier in the day so they aren’t as irritable. If the pet was old or had an ongoing illness, you can start preparing your child for death before it has happened. If it happens suddenly, make sure they understand that it is very rare. Children sometimes project their fears and start to worry that their parents or siblings could suffer a similar fate.
You should also let your child know that you did everything you could to save the animal. You could also say things like:
“This is the kindest way to stop his/her suffering.”
“Your pet wasn’t scared or alone.”
“They are in a better place now.”
Shelter them from the worst of it
Saying goodbye to a pet can be very traumatic, particularly if you have to decide when it’s time to let go. Children might struggle to understand why you chose to euthanise your pet, so shelter them from these facts. If they know that their parent chose to let their pet go, they might harbour some resentment, guilt and anger about the events.
Sometimes children make mistakes that lead to the death of a pet. For example, if your child left a door open and their pet escaped, don’t let your child shoulder the blame for this. The parent should take responsibility for not supervising the child and the pet.
If a child feels guilt around the death of their pet, these feelings can stick with them for a long time. If you want them to have a healthy understanding of death, it’s important to shelter them from these feelings.
Let them know it’s okay to be upset
Showing your own emotions is an excellent way to let your child know that it’s perfectly normal to be upset about the loss of their pet. Getting angry with a child for being upset about their pet will only make them internalise their grief, which could lead to behavioural problems down the line.
Instead, let them know that it’s okay to feel whatever emotions they might be feeling about their pet. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. They should also know that they don’t have to feel guilty for being happy. Children often see things in black and white, so they assume they have to be sad all of the time. Let them know that it’s okay to be happy and to be distracted by other things. Encouraging them to get wrapped up in other activities can help to redirect their grief.
Let them say goodbye in their own way
Children form incredible bonds with their pets, so, naturally, they will have their own way of saying goodbye. Let your child plan a memorial service for their pet so that they can honour them in their own way. You could order a cake and some flowers, print out pictures of the pet and gather friends and family to say a few words.
If you have your pet cremated, this would be an ideal opportunity to give your child an ashes keepsake. This could be a pendant, a glass pebble or an ornament. It will help your child to keep the memory of their pet close by.
Focus on the happy times
Death is a scary subject, and it can overshadow the joy that the pet brought into your child’s life. Try to reframe their grief and allow them to switch their focus to the good times they had with their pet. This could mean going through old photographs or asking your child to draw pictures of their pet.
By focussing on the happy times, it helps children to modulate their feelings and manage their anxiety. They will learn to refocus their attention on something more positive when something is making them feel sad or angry. You should also remind your child that it will get easier and they won’t feel this way forever. This might cause some anxiety, as they might be afraid to let go, so reassure them that they will have the memories to hold on to forever.
Don’t replace the pet too quickly
It can be tempting to help your child deal with the loss by distracting them with another pet. This will often backfire, as the child may feel guilt about replacing their pet too quickly. It’s always best to leave time between the loss of a pet and bringing a new animal into the home.
Your child might have sleepless nights following the death of their pet and you might notice changes in their behaviour. Parents know their children best, so you’ll know when they are ready to think about getting another pet. Getting a different type of pet (a cat after a dog, for example) can also help your child to manage their feelings and avoid any feelings of guilt.