Children and Pet Loss
“There is only one smartest dog in the world
and every child has it.”
Bereavement in children too often has been trivialized or given inadequate attention. We are so involved with our own adult world of complexities and learned associations that we tend to lose some perspective on how and why children feel grief for a pet. We too often presume that it is advisable to shelter them from this “grown-up experience” which we find to be very upsetting. In nearly all applications, that is absolutely the wrong approach. If they are old enough to reason, then they sense very accurately when they are being left out of important discussions about things that concern them. The death of a child’s beloved pet matters a great deal in his or her young life. How this is handled now will remain with the child for the rest of his or her life.
The death of a family pet is often the first death experienced by a child. Children naturally develop strong attachments to companion animals, relating to them as siblings, playmates, confidants and even imaginary protectors. Although children experience grief differently than adults, they do grieve. They need support and guidance to understand their loss, to mourn that loss, and to find ways to remember and memorialize their deceased loved one. Children look to us for guidance in word as well action. The death of a beloved pet presents an emotional stress, even for a well-adjusted adult. Thus, it is important for adults to access bereavement supports for themselves, in order to deal with their emotions and be more effective parents for their children. Also, we must avoid projecting our own overconcerns on a child, creating problems that would not have otherwise existed.
Children do not respond to death as adults do. Their normal reactions are much more natural, curious and varied, until that is changed by the adult world. How the child responds will depend on the strength of the bond with the pet, as well as the child’s age and developmental stage. Always keep in mind that the parent is the model here for almost everything. The general subject of death is not unknown to children. They watch movies, television; they hear reports from schoolmates and friends. You may be surprised at how much your child does know.
2-3 Year Olds:
Two to three year olds do not have the life experiences to give them an understanding of death. They should be told the pet has died and will not return. It is important that they be reassured that they did not do or say anything to cause the death. Children at this age may not understand what death really means, but they will sense and copy your emotions and behavior. Note that it is good to cry and show your own feelings of grief, but these must be controlled and perceived as a normal response to the loss of a loved one. Extra reassurance, as well as maintaining usual routines will help the child. At this age one will usually accept a new pet very easily.
4-6 Year Olds:
Children of this age group usually have some understanding of death but may not comprehend the permanence of it. They may even think the pet is asleep or continuing to eat, breathe and play. They may also feel that past anger towards their pet, or some perceived bad behavior was responsible for its death. Manifestations of grief may include bowel or bladder disturbances as well as a change in playing, eating and sleeping habits. Through frequent, brief discussions allow the child to express feelings and concerns. Give extra reassurance. Drawing pictures and writing stories about their loss may be helpful. Include the child in any funeral arrangements.
7-9 Year Olds:
Children in this age group know that death is irreversible. They do not normally think this might happen to them, but they may be concerned about the death of their parents. They are very curious and may ask questions that appear morbid. These questions are natural and are best answered frankly and honestly. At this age they may manifest their grief in many ways, such as school problems, anti-social behavior, somatic or physical concerns, aggression, and withdrawal or clinging behavior. As with young children, it is important that they be reassured that they did not do or say anything that caused the death.
10-11 Year Olds:
Children in this age group are usually able to understand that death is natural, inevitable and happens to all living things. They often react to death in a manner very similar to adults, using their parent’s attitude as their model. A pet’s death can trigger memories of previous losses of any kind, and this should always be open for discussion.
This generalized age group reacts similarly to adults. However, the typical adolescent span of expression can range from apparent total lack of concern to hyper-emotional. One day they want to be treated like an adult, and the next day they need to be reassured like a young child. Peer approval is also very important. If friends are supportive, it is much easier for them to deal with a loss. Also, keep in mind that an adolescent is trying to find his or her own true feelings, and may be prone to conflict with a parent on how to express feelings and grief, at this time. It is important to avoid antagonisms over this.
Although young adults can hardly be called children, the loss of a pet in this age group can be particularly hard. They may also have feelings of guilt for abandoning their pets when leaving home for college, work or marriage. There may have been a very close relationship with that pet since early childhood. Among other pressures experienced after the departure from home, this can add additional stress. Due to geographical distances, they are often unable to return to the family home to say goodbye to the pet or participate in family rituals associated with the loss.
Children see tears and grief, and they learn from total immersion what bereavement means. Don’t try to protect them from this reality. Let them share your feelings to a reasonable degree - according to their maturity and ability to understand. This will help them to know that grief is normal and is acceptable, in whatever loss they are experiencing. Teach them that ultimately, all life is change and growth. That is a very hard lesson to learn, but a necessary one. They need to understand that tears in a loving and understanding environment can help people get past the worst of the sadness. And through experience they will later learn that time will always help make things feel better.
Children may ask many questions upon the death of a pet. This may include why did he/she die? Where did he/she go? Will we see him/her again? Is he/she with God? Can he/she hear us?
It is best to answer questions as honestly as possible - but avoid giving too much detail with extra information. Young children, in particular, need only basic answers to satisfy their wonder. Your responses should also be based on your religious or philosophical views, in regards to the soul and an afterlife. It is also okay to say that you really don’t know an answer. But by all means, share your own personal thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Let children know that it is alright to ask questions, and to cry. And it is okay for you to cry with them - if they perceive that tears can help ease some of the pain.
Children, as well as adults, need good distractions from fixation on the death of a pet. The following is a list of ways to creatively memorialize a pet.
- 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 dogtag, 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.
- Placing a picture memorial with a written message to the pet on our website is another way of bringing peace of mind and comfort to everyone in the family. It assists with coming to some sense of resolution, and accepting the transfer of the pet to a beloved memory. That can be especially helpful to children when they and their friends visit and honor their beloved one, there. To place a memorial, please click on the Join Us link on this website and follow the instructions. The child can help write the memorial statement with you.
A child’s ability to cope with an animal companion’s death can be compromised by other stresses, such as parental or sibling conflict, mental health issues, substance abuse, other family pressures - or another recent death. Children in high stress families often develop early dependencies and attachments with a family pet. When that companion dies, it may create a crisis for that child.
As adult helpers and caregivers, we need to be mindful of our own loss history and any gaps in bereavement support for us, particularly when we were children. Many of us have early memories of a pet loss. They may be punctuated with resentment due to a lack of factual information or parental preparation regarding a pet’s death. Too often, we still have feelings that we were excluded from opportunities to say goodbye to a beloved animal, when we were children. In order to adequately support our children now, when they are facing the loss of a pet, we need to heal our wounded hearts, and be mindful of our own “inner child” that may also grieve deeply when a family pet dies. In a too-busy world, so many of us have lost contact with that. Adult relationships with beloved companion animals tend to evoke our own more child-like qualities. And when we lose a pet we can be left feeling bereft, ourselves, longing for the very comfort that we now need to provide our children.
The loss of a pet can be a significant source of grief in a family. Indeed, it is the loss of a beloved member. That can lead to disorganization in family functioning, due to bereavement and changes in routines. New ones will have to be created, and it can be beneficial to discuss this. Children will need support to cope with the changes - as well as to understand the emotional impact on everyone, including their parents. It is important to show them it is good for families to react and grieve together.
When a child loses a beloved pet it is advisable to inform other caregivers. This includes day care providers and teachers. They are in an excellent position to observe and understand any significant changes in your child. There may be an onset of daydreaming in class, or at home. Homework may not get done, and participation in class may drop noticeably. Appetite and sleep habits may change, or the child may become quiet, or even irritable. These are all signs that need to be addressed. Children can’t cope by themselves, and will need all the understanding and support available. Sometimes, if requested, a good teacher will schedule class time to talk about pets and their death. The loss of a beloved companion animal is often our children’s first real encounter with death, and that experience will remain and affect them for the rest of their lives. They need their adult role models to learn appropriate responses. We can help them by better coping with our own emotional problems associated with loss, death and dying. It is never too late to develop skills and approaches for yourself, that will also enhance your child’s growing ability to deal with this kind of traumatic loss.
There are many excellent and heartwarming illustrated books for children, on the death of a beloved pet. Get some of these and read to them. It will be good medicine for both of you. To see a listing of recommended titles, visit our website’s Bibliography link.
We recommend reading The Loss of a Pet, by Dr. Wallace Sife. Included in the many chapters dealing with all aspects of healing from pet bereavement, there is a special chapter: “Children and Pet Loss.” It makes a fine supplement to this abbreviated webpage. This book can also be found on our website’s Bibliography link.