Children & Pet Loss
“There is only one smartest dog in the world and every child has it.”
Bereavement in children often has been trivialized or given inadequate attention. As adults, we are so involved with our own grief that we tend to lose perspective on how and why children feel grief for a pet. We often feel that it is advisable to shelter them from this “grown-up experience”. However, if they are old enough to reason, they sense when they are being left out of important discussions. The death of a child’s beloved pet matters a great deal to their young life. How this is managed 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 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 pet. 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 support for themselves to help their children deal with their grief. We must avoid projecting our own concerns on a child, as theirs might be quite different.
Age-Related Developmental Stages, Related to The Death Of A Pet
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 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 may be told that 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 children 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 its permanence. 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 play, eating and sleeping habits. Frequent, brief discussions allow the child to express feelings and concerns. Give extra reassurance. Drawing pictures and writing stories about their pet 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, or physical changes, 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 may be 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, and this should always be open for discussion.
This generalized age group reacts similarly to adults. However, typical adolescent grief 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. 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. It is important to avoid conflict.
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 or university, 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 what bereavement means. Let them be exposed to this reality. Let them share your feelings according to their maturity and ability to understand. This will help them to know that grief is normal and is acceptable. Teach them that ultimately, all life is change and growth.. They need to understand that tears and hugs in a loving and understanding environment can help people get past the worst of the sadness. As life goes on they will learn that time heals.
Questions That Children May Ask
Children may ask many questions upon the death of a pet. This may include why did s/he die? Where did s/he go? Will we see him/her again? Is s/he with God? Can s/he hear us?
It is best to answer questions as honestly as possible. Young children in particular need only basic answers to satisfy their concerns. Your responses should also be based on your religious or philosophical views. It is also okay to say that you really don’t have an answer. But by all means, share your own personal thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Let children know that it is okay to ask questions, and to cry. And it is okay for you to cry with them. Tears can help ease the pain.
Involving Children In Memorializing Their Pets
Children, as well as adults, need 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.
- Make a scrapbook with photos as well as drawn pictures of the pet and family members. Write memories beneath. 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.
- If a pet has been cremated, choose a special place in the home for the urn, as well as 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. Children can participate in this decision-making process.
- If the ashes are to be scattered, let children feel they are part of the decision-making. It will be more meaningful if this is done at a place where the pet loved to goIt is important that children be made to feel that their thoughts and feelings are important to you.
- If a pet is to be buried, wrap the body in a shroud or casket that, if possible is made by a family member. This can create 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 memorial that brings some closure to grief.
- Some people have a ritual of lighting candles on anniversaries, and reminiscing about their life with their pets. This offers them a sense of comfort and respect. Let the children participate in this.
- It is good to invite friends to talk about their own 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 with a 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 resolution, and accepting the transfer of the pet to a special memory. To place a memorial, please click on the Join Us link on this website and follow the instructions. Children can help write the memorial statement.
Who Else Should Be Informed?
When a child loses a 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 loss of pets.. The death of an animal companion is often our childrens’ first real encounter with death. They need adult role models to learn appropriate responses. We can help them by coping with our own emotions 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 illustrated books for children, on the death of a beloved pet. Reading them together will be good medicine for both of you. To see a listing of recommended titles, visit our Bibliography page.
The Loss of a Pet, by Dr. Wallace Sife includes a chapter: “Children and Pet Loss.” It makes a fine supplement to this webpage.
The Elderly and Pet Loss
Older pet owners, especially single senior citizens, are extremely affectionate and emotionally dependent upon their animal companions. This relationship is unwavering amidst changes that may include physical changes to their mobility, sight, and hearing. An animal companion is there to share the loneliness and provide respite from the mental and emotional changes that also accompany the twilight years. In some cases, a highly intelligent animal companion can understand the changes that his/ her guardian is experiencing and can help make accommodations. Loneliness can be a constant for the single senior as visitors can be few and far between, and an animal companion then takes on an even more vital role in lessening the feeling of total isolation. When the animal itself is aged, or experiencing health problems, the senior must take on added caretaking responsibilities. This can be especially difficult for those who are not well themselves. However, this situation can be viewed in two different ways: on the positive side, the elderly person can feel needed and useful when providing loving care to the animal, whereas on the negative side, if outside care is required, and s/he is relieved of that duty, a feeling of “letting down” a dear friend and even him/herself, may be experienced. Additionally, seniors have by virtue of their years lived, by this time experienced the loss of many animal and human friends, and perhaps even more recently as they age. The fact that their animal is aging, or has recently died, is reason for deep bereavement and mourning. Clearly too, the senior recognizes that their time too is coming to an end too and a loss now can trigger fears about their own mortality. As a Pet Loss Bereavement Counselor or Specialist, extra loving care, compassion, understanding and patience must be taken with a senior client. This relationship could, however, become a win-win for us as we will be fulfilling a moral and social duty to the elderly pet guardian, while providing us with valuable insight about how we too as animal lovers will need to face this situation one day.
Singles, Couples and Pet Loss
A brief word here about singles and couples who have decided not to have children, or cannot. The bonds that form in this category may fulfill the role of a surrogate deceased husband/wife, partner, child, or even children. Animal companions are considered family members in their own right and therefore are mourned accordingly.