My earliest memories center on our lively, red-haired family member, Donovan. He was the star of our summer outings, ate too much birthday cake, and made holidays chaotic. He was my constant companion and first adventure buddy. I recall vividly, despite my young age of four, when I realized that Donovan was missing. I walked into my mom’s room as she was making her bed and asked where Donovan had gone. Like most moms, she struggled with how to tell her child the beloved family dog died.
Coping with pet loss can be a difficult, yet cathartic time
for families. It is often a child’s
first experience of death. Parents
struggle with if, when, and how to involve children in this process. Instincts tell you to protect them from the
pain of pet loss, while logic argues that they should understand that death is a
part of life. The grieving process is unique
for each family member, but when approached with openness and patience, it
provides an opportunity to become closer.
There are many factors to consider when helping children cope
with pet loss. First, remember that you are
working through this together. As the parent, you are the guide and model, but it
is okay to admit your own feelings of grief.
Parents often want to hide their sadness in order to keep from burdening
children. In most cases, being
transparent with your emotions will give them permission to share theirs. Be mindful that your son or daughter may
react differently to pet loss than you do, or even than other children of
Parents seek to understand age-appropriate ways to
incorporate children in the illness and death process. Although developmental stages are helpful, your
gut will tell you how much they are ready to know. Most children from the age of two will have a
sense of grief that comes with pet loss. While they may not be able to
comprehend death as a permanent state until after the age of seven, you should
be transparent and truthful.
Most of you can recall a story like Donovan’s: mom panicked
and said the pet went to live on a farm.
Children sense that this explanation is not plausible, which causes them
confusion or perhaps more distress.
Because they are learning about the permanence of death, they wonder why
a part of the family was taken away.
They also may link their actions to the pet’s removal from the
house. Reassure your children they were
not the cause of the pet’s death. For
younger ages, provide enough information so they understand their friend was sick. With older children, give more details as
Children often react in ways that seem idiosyncratic or
inappropriate, but this is especially true for teens. Some may act out or express anger in
situations not directly related to the loss.
Parents want them to confront their feelings directly by talking about
the death. If your child is not ready, offering patience with their emotional
ups and downs will better serve them. Refrain from having a timeframe for grief
Create a Memorial
Make your home an accepting environment for all respectful
reactions to grief. Some children may
accept death readily, having no reaction.
For others, reactions may come at a later time. Involving your children in a memorial can
help them find peace. Ask them to do something
in memory of the pet, like make a collage together or pick out picture frames
for a pet corner in your home. Invite
them to write a letter to your pet saying goodbye as a way of helping them
express their feelings.
Finally, when your family has suffered a pet loss, allow for
extra time together. Going for a drive,
taking a walk, or similar activities promote conversation naturally. Respond to their thoughts with validation, seeking
to know more. If they choose to be silent, soak up the extra moments with your
family, feeling gratitude for the time shared.
A pet enters into your life for a few precious moments and teaches your
children about unconditional love, but their lessons stay in your family’s