The death of a family pet is often a child’s first experience with loss. Children experience grief also, though their age and development levels influence their grief reactions. They express grief differently than adults due to shortened attention spans and varying intellectual levels of understanding death and loss.
Children ages 1-2:
Their world is experienced through their senses. At this age, they do not understand death. Instead, they respond to their caregiver’s emotions and behaviors. They may express grief as irritability, changes in sleep and eating patterns and quietness. Possible interventions include comforting the child and maintaining normal routines.
Children ages 2-6:
For children at these ages, death is like sleeping. Death is temporarily and perhaps reversible, not final, and the deceased pet can come back to life. Children may ask and repeat many questions (When will he be back? Where did he go? What will he eat in the ground?). They may also believe that the pet’s death was somehow their fault. Possible interventions include symbolic play, drawing/stories, and allowing the child to express their feeling and talk about the event. It is also important for the adults to display appropriate expression of feelings, which will create a sense of safety about experiencing emotions and expressing them appropriately.
Children ages 6-12:
Children in this age range begin to understand death as final. They may be curious of the physical and biological aspects of the deceased. In the earlier years of this developmental phase, children may believe death is something that occurs to only the old, and only to others. Soon an understanding will occur that death can happen to anyone as well as themselves. Fear of death may occur. Acting out behaviors at home and at school may be exhibited. Social development is occurring so children may imitate how others around them respond to death or may hide their feelings in attempt to not appear “different”. It is important for parents to continue to model appropriate behaviors and be honest and factual with children. Possible interventions include answering questions and encouragement to express their feelings openly.
Young adults are able to think abstractly about death. They understand it is the end of a physical life. At this age, teenagers are searching for identity and attempting to find a balance between independence and dependence of their caregiver. They may struggle with needing support and not wanting it. It is important to help them find personal ways to express their grief, such as writing, drawing and talking. It is important to allow them to grieve and talk about their feelings.
Additional Tips for Helping Children through Pet Illness and Death
- Be as honest as possible. Avoid using the phrase “put to sleep”. This can be frightening and confusing to young children, who may associate the word “sleep” with going to bed.
- As a parent, it’s natural to want to protect your child from any pain, including the pain associated with grief. Some Parents think that a way to do this is to lie about the death of a pet. Fabricating reasons why a pet is no longer in the home leads to many other emotional effects, such as abandonment issues, a continued sense of hope for their return, and unresolved grief due to a loss not being recognized. Instead, be honest with your children about a pet’s death.
- Recognize that pet death is a significant loss for children and should not be minimized as unimportant. It is an important time for parents and other adults to teach children how to express grief in emotionally healthy ways, free of shame or embarrassment.
- Discover what the individual child is thinking. Be open and receptive to any questions/concerns that your child may have.
- Be aware that children often mistakenly believe that they are somehow responsible for the pet’s death. Talk openly with children about this.
- Involve children as much as possible in decisions surrounding the pet’s illness and death. During euthanasia, it can be helpful for the child to have a choice of being present or not. If a child does not want to be present, viewing their pet’s body afterwards for final goodbyes can help create a sense of closure and finality.
- Understand that the emotional responses to a pet’s death vary according to the child’s relationship with the pet. Don’t assume the child’s reaction will be the same as the adult’s.
- Parents are encouraged to involve their children in a goodbye ceremony and in memorializing the pet. Some ideas are making a clay paw print, cut a hair clipping, creating a shadow box, or holding a funeral service or memorial celebration.
- Don’t encourage replacement of pets, but rather share memories and stories of the deceased pet.