Helping a Child with Pet Loss
by Taylor Evans September 17, 2021 4 min read
Pets are part of the family. They bring unconditional love and joy to our lives, and their loss can be devastating. For parents, explaining the loss of a pet can be difficult. You may not know where to start or how to broach the topic.
To help your child grieve and deal with the loss of a pet, it can be helpful to understand how they understand death.
How Children Understand and Cope with Death
Like adults, children grieve in different ways, and their understanding of death changes with age. Although age isn’t the only factor to consider, it can be helpful to understand how your child views death.
Infants and Toddlers
Children can pick up on and respond to the sadness and stress family members are experiencing at this age. You may notice changes in their sleeping or eating patterns. Crying and clinging are also common reactions at this age. Extra attention and affection can help.
3-6 Years of Age
Children at this age generally view death as reversible and temporary. However, they may miss their pet as a playmate and need a little extra reassurance at this time.
6-9 Years of Age
Children in this age range may understand that death is final, but it’s not necessarily inevitable. They may believe that death is caused by someone else’s wishes or may even be contagious. Fear comes into play at this age. Your child may be worried about losing you or their other parent.
Children need extra reassurance at this age. Allow them to express their strong feelings both physically and verbally. Answer their questions honestly and frankly. Most importantly, spend quality time together and show them love.
9-12 Years of Age
At this age, children understand that death is final. They may have a greater awareness of death and a fear that other loved ones will die. Children may also be worried that their behaviors, thoughts or words caused the pet’s death.
Provide comfort and support, and allow your child to decide how to mourn. Try to be patient, as some children may have strong emotional reactions and mood swings.
Teens understand that death is final and inevitable. They may have a strong emotional attachment to the pet, so their feelings of loss and sadness may be overwhelming. It may take more time for your teen to work through their grief. It can be helpful for your teen to talk to other kids who have also lost a pet.
Mistakes to Avoid When Explaining a Pet Loss to a Child
Having a greater understanding of your child’s comprehension of death can help you appropriately broach the subject. But there are still some mistakes that you want to avoid.
- Expecting children to grieve like adults. Remember that everyone grieves in their own way, and your child’s understanding of death will be different from an adult’s understanding.
- Not being open and honest about the death. Lying about what happened, asking other family members to lie or providing distorted information about what happened may only lead to resentment later in life.
- Trying to protect children from pain by not including them in critical decisions about treatment for the pet.
- Offering to replace the pet with a new one.
- Not allowing your child to be present or to say goodbye to the pet.
How to Help Your Child Cope with the Loss of a Pet
When faced with the loss of a pet, it’s essential to approach the situation in an empathetic and loving way. In many cases, the loss of a pet is the first loss that a child will experience in life and their experience during this time will affect how they handle future losses.
Here are some ways that you can help your child handle the loss of a pet.
View the Loss as a Teachable Moment
The loss of a pet is an opportunity to help children understand important life lessons. Most importantly, it can help your child understand that grief is simply a part of life and is something that should be accepted and discussed.
The experience can also help your child understand that:
- Grief and hurt are a fact of life, and we must find healthy, effective ways to deal with these emotions.
- Pain can be difficult to cope with, but it won’t last forever.
- Nothing lasts forever. Death is inevitable.
- Pets generally have a shorter lifespan than humans, so the loss of a pet is to be expected.
- Despite our best efforts, unexpected things happen.
The loss of a pet also teaches children that while veterinarians are skilled and experienced, they cannot perform miracles. We do all that we can to care for our pets (and each other), but some issues simply cannot be fixed.
Respect Your Child’s Love and Attachment to the Pet
It’s important to remember that the loss of a pet is likely the first encounter your child will have with death and the loss of something significant. Your child may have formed a strong attachment to the pet, and the loss may be devastating.
Respect your child’s feelings. Do not minimize the situation because the animal was small or make your child feel as though they are overreacting.
Pets offer unconditional love. They don’t judge. They aren’t demanding. They are always there as a loyal, loving companion and playmate. For these reasons, pets can be especially important to children, and the loss can be especially difficult to handle.
Be Direct and Allow Your Child to Grieve
When explaining the loss to your child, speak plainly and directly. Make sure that you’re clear about what happened and that your child understands the situation. Use age-appropriate language.
While your gut reaction may be to comfort your child and take away the pain, it’s important to allow them to grieve. Allow them to cry and openly discuss their feelings. Allow them to take an active role in goodbye rituals and memorials. Encourage your child to ask questions, and provide honest answers.
Coping with the loss of a pet can be difficult for the entire family, but it can be incredibly challenging for parents to break the news. Use these tips to help your child cope with the loss and work through the grieving process.
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