Monday, February 19, 2018

Explaining Pet Loss to Children: Some Do's and Don'ts

[Reviewed and updated December 8, 2022]

Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies. ~ Edna St. Vincent Millay

Whether it’s a dog or a cat, a Guinea pig, a hamster or a goldfish, the death of a pet is often a young family’s first experience with significant loss. As a grief counselor who also specializes in pet loss, I am often asked by teachers, parents, grandparents and others how best to explain to children the death of a family pet. Here are the points I encourage them to consider.

Mistakes to Avoid:

• Thinking that children are miniature adults with the same level of cognitive and emotional development
• Expecting that a child will grieve as an adult (i.e., the same way a parent is grieving)
• Misinterpreting a child’s silence or intermittent symptoms as having nothing to do with grieving
• Protecting children from pain by making key decisions about treatments, without including them in those discussions
• Providing children with incomplete or distorted information about the nature and circumstances of the death
• Euthanizing pets without giving children the opportunity to be present, or at least to view the body and say goodbye
• Lying to children about what actually happened to the pet – or asking others to lie to them
• Offering or pressuring children to replace the lost pet with a new one

Some Do's and Don'ts for Grownups

Do handle the pet’s death in a loving, respectful, empathetic way. (How this loss is handled lays the groundwork for a child to face and handle life’s many losses in the future. Hurt is a fact of life; grief is not rare; it happens whenever we lose someone or something we love.)

Do see this as a teachable moment, encountering some of life's most important lessons:
  • Grief is something we must accept and discuss openly. 
  • Loss provides the foundation to handle future disappointments, crises and grief. 
  • Loss always hurts, but positives can and do come out of it. 
  • We become more sensitive to others who are hurting, because we know how it feels to lose someone we love. 
  • Pain is tolerable and doesn’t last forever. 
  • Since hurt is inevitable, we must learn effective ways to deal with it. 
  • Our understanding of death and its meaning continues and takes place over time; it is a lifelong, evolving exploration. 
  • Despite all our loving and caring, unfortunate things occur. Many are random: some are good, some are bad and unfair. 
  • Nothing in life lasts forever; all things in nature have a beginning and an ending, with living in between. Parts get old and wear out; illness comes; accidents happen. 
  • Veterinarians can’t perform miracles; some problems can’t be fixed; some pets can’t be saved. 
  • Animal companions have comparatively shorter life spans than we do, so experiencing pet death is likely at some point. 
Do recognize that pet death is often a child’s first real encounter with the loss of something so important.

Do respect the child’s attachment to the pet, and the significance of the loss.

Don’t minimize because the animal was small. The animal's size, type, or breed are not good measures. What matters is the child’s felt sense of loss and the strength of emotional attachment to the animal. 

Don’t underestimate the importance of the pet to the child. A pet is one of the most accepting figures in a child’s life: a steady, non-demanding, non-judgmental playmate, confidante and ally, whose affection never varied no matter what else changed in the child's world.

Don’t set up a “hierarchy of allowable grief.” Realize the extent of the loss from the child's perspective.

Don’t regard this as an emotional “dress rehearsal” for the “real loss” of a relative or friend. For most kids, death of a pet is a profoundly painful experience in and of itself.

Don’t ever lie! Use a clear, direct approach; avoid being evasive or unrealistic. Honesty teaches a child to trust; listening to feelings teaches respect.

Don’t use euphemisms (put to sleep, gone, lost); they lead to misunderstanding, confusion and fear. Lost pets need to be found; dead ones are never coming back.

Do let a child participate and be included in discussions, decisions, goodbye rituals, memorials ~ the entire grieving process.

Do keep it simple, accurate, plain and direct! Offer explanations that are clear, understandable (age-appropriate, at the child’s level of understanding), that you are comfortable with, and in language familiar to the child.

Do allow ample time for children to talk about their feelings; don’t suppress (“Don’t cry!”).

Do model openly talking about the pet, how s/he feels, how much the pet meant to other family members.

Do focus on topics related to coping (at the child’s level of understanding).

Do help children accept feelings that are painful, disturbing but normal; give names to feelings (mad, sad, afraid).

Do encourage questions; give sympathetic, straight answers.

Do convey love for the child and explicit acceptance of feelings.

Do let children see your emotions, which serves as an example for them to follow.

Do find and read books on pet loss together.

Do alert significant adults about what has happened: teachers, caretakers, relatives, neighbors.

Don't get a new pet in an effort to replace this one. Getting a new pet too soon may imply to children that their grief is unimportant and unnecessary, since everything is replaceable anyway (including the children themselves). They also may react with anger and guilt, rejecting the new pet and feeling disloyal to the one who died.

Do remember that children grieve differently from adults, according to the knowledge and skills available to them at the time of the loss. Children grieve just as deeply as grownups, but will express it differently:
  • With a shorter attention span, they will move in and out of grief. 
  • Their symptoms come and go, and vary in intensity. 
  • They have less prior experience with crisis and its consequences, so they have a simpler repertoire of coping skills 
  • Their capacity to confront the reality of loss is more limited. 
  • Their ability to find meaning is less mature; they may be surprised or embarrassed by their own reaction and try to mask or hide it. 
  • Feelings may include confusion, fear, sadness, anger, pain, distress, separation anxiety (clinging), and guilt ~ expressed through play: drawing pictures, telling stories, re-enacting the death by staging a funeral or burial.
  • Acting out might include biting, hitting, kicking, throwing tantrums, breaking rules, picking fights with siblings.
  • Behaviors include difficulty concentrating (leading to learning problems at school), nightmares or sleeplessness, withdrawal from activities and people; psychosomatic complaints (fatigue, sore throat, headache, stomach ache); regressing to an earlier stage of development. 
Do understand that grief is experienced and expressed in different ways at different ages and stages:
  • 0-3 years: Responds to family stress, sadness, changes in routine with crying, clinging, withdrawing, regressing; eating, sleep disturbances. Needs hugs, cuddling, special attention, continuity.  
  • 3-6 years: Thinks death is temporary and reversible (as in Sleeping Beauty, Wiley Coyote cartoons); pet is missed as a playmate but not as a love object. Needs reassurance. 
  • 6-9 years: Understands death is final but not inevitable; may be contagious, may be avoided or wished upon another or caused by one's own evil wishes (magical thinking); fear is greater (may lose parent too). Needs reassurance ("Who will take care of me?"), explanation of and permission for strong feelings. 
  • 9-12 years: Knows death comes to all living things; that death means all bodily functions stop; that death can happen suddenly or gradually; that death is final, permanent, inevitable. 
  • Teens: Feel at once alienated from adults and quite attached to their pets; relationships are more intense; they may take longer to resolve grief. Best help is to find other kids who’ve lost a pet: “Real experts are those who’ve been through it.” 
  • Age is not the most important factor; a child is part of the family, and a child old enough to love is old enough to grieve. 
Do recognize behaviors that could be cause for concern:
  • It’s a matter of degree; every child is different and every parent is, too. Parents know their children best, and they must decide whether their child needs professional help.
  • If a child becomes unmanageable (regressed, aggressive, oppositional, withdrawn, depressed, non-communicative, inattentive, suicidal) either at home or in school, then assessment and evaluation by a qualified professional is indicated. 
  • Factors to consider:
    • Child's age, level of maturity, understanding, comprehension of death 
    • Role of the pet in the child’s life (strength of attachment; how long in family) 
    • Concurrent events (move, divorce, etc.) 
    • Child’s personal loss history 
    • Child's ability to cope with crisis 
    • Relationship with parents 
    • Circumstances surrounding the pet’s death (accidental? purposeful?) 
    • Quality, availability of other means of support (a trusted relative, neighbor, friend, teacher, school counselor, pastor).
In the end, the best way to help a child in grief is for parents to take care of their own grief first. As the attendant says when you fly on an airplane: Put your oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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