The death of a pet is a traumatic experience for any child. It may be the first time he or she experiences the pain of loss. Helping your child work through her grief can make the healing journey more bearable.
First, acknowledge that your child’s grief is genuine. No matter how small the pet, your child will have formed an emotional connection with it. A child can grieve as intensely as an adult, albeit for a shorter time.
It is important to allow your child to express grief for his pet. Show him that it’s okay to be sad. Hiding your own sadness may make your child feel that he too should be holding back the tears.
Ceremony and remembering
Ritual is an important part of the healing process. It is a way of saying goodbye. A small ceremony or burial to mark the passing of a beloved pet represents closure. There are no rules here; do what feels right. Involve your child in the ceremony. Light a candle or ask your child to write a short poem or say a few words of her own. Don’t pressure her to do anything she doesn’t want to. This will only add to the trauma.
If a burial is not possible, make a small box with a few of your pet’s things – a toy, a piece of blanket, a goodbye card from your child. The box can be buried in your own yard or another special place.
Create a scrapbook or keepsake box to celebrate your pet’s life. It has been shown that actively doing something to express grief helps further the healing process. Let your child frame a photo or draw a picture. Encourage your child to talk about his pet and remember happy moments.
Where did my pet go?
The death of a pet will raise issues which you may feel uncomfortable explaining. All but the very youngest children will ask probing questions: Where did my pet go? Why did he have to go?
Gently explain to your child that her pet has died and will not be coming back. Make absolutely sure that your child does not believe that something she has done has caused the death of the pet. Explain in physical terms what death is: the body has stopped working. Explain that a pet’s life is naturally shorter than a human life (even though your pet may not have died of natural causes).
Avoid phrases like ‘Fluffy has gone to sleep’ or ‘God took Fido’. Young children take things very literally and may fear that if they themselves ‘go to sleep’ they will not return, or could be ‘taken’.
The age of your child and your personal spiritual views and will determine whether you wish to introduce the concept of a ‘soul’ or ‘afterlife’.
Some grief counsellors recommend the following exercise. Ask your child where he thinks his pet is now. Let his imagination fill out the details of his pet’s afterlife. Once your child can imagine his pet in a secure, happy place, it will help him move on to acceptance. This exercise need not conflict with your own beliefs. Your personal spiritual stance can be incorporated into your child’s imaginary afterlife. It’s also okay to say that no one knows for sure where pets (or people) go when they die.
It’s not necessary to go into long philosophical debate about life and death, but to simply answer the question your child asks. Questions will arise naturally over time and it’s best to deal in straightforward answers. Discuss and agree with your partner what you will both tell your child, particularly if you have differing religious or spiritual views.
Signs of grieving
Young children may show signs of grieving through upset eating and sleeping patterns, or regression in bladder and bowel control. Be patient and understand that these disruptions to your child’s behavior are a way of grief expressing itself.
In older children, grief may manifest itself in behaving anti-socially or appearing withdrawn. Inform your child’s teacher of the loss of the pet so that the teacher can be prepared for any unusual behavior displayed by your child.
Adolescents may not outwardly show physical signs of grief for the pet. This does not mean they are not grieving. Your teenager may have lost the only ‘person’ that he or she could confide in and believed loved them unconditionally.
As with all kinds of grief, it’s not over in a day. Your child may ask questions and display signs of grief for months after the death of a pet. Expect your child to return to the subject of her pet’s death repeatedly. This repetition helps your child come to terms with the loss. Be patient. Your child will continue to seek reassurance and understanding for a while yet.
A new pet?
Don’t get a new pet right away. It may suggest to your child that his pet was insignificant and easily replaceable. You will sense when the time is right to bring a new pet into your home. Choose a time when a pet will be well-received and loved – a good thing for both your child and the pet.