Losing a pet is always hard, but it can be especially tough for kids. Pets are members of the family, and kids often bond very closely with them. In many cases, the loss of a pet is a child’s first experience with death and significant grief. It can be hard to explain death to a child, especially when you are mourning yourself. But helping your child find healthy ways to express their feelings can help not just with overcoming the pain of losing a pet, but also with handling future losses later in life.
A child’s understanding of death changes with age. Children under the age of five don’t really understand the permanence of death and may need it to be explained more than once that a pet will not be coming back. Older kids that have a better understanding of what death means but may have a lot of questions about what happened. Older kids and teenagers may struggle with expressing their emotions and may be embarrassed to be seen grieving. At all ages, the death of a pet can inspire worries about a child’s own mortality or the loss of other loved ones and caretakers.
Children are unique individuals, and no two people react to a loss the same way. A child’s response to a pet’s death will depend on the child’s age, their relationship to the pet, the circumstances of the death and so forth.
A wide range of emotions might be experienced during grief: sadness, anger, frustration, guilt, loneliness. The symptoms of grief can manifest in many different ways:
All of these are common and natural reactions to intense stress and emotional turmoil. It’s important to let your child know that these emotions are normal. Simply naming and validating their feelings can help a lot with overcoming grief.
If your child exhibits any physical symptoms for more than a few days, or if their symptoms become severe enough to disrupt day-to-day life, seeking the help of a medical professional is a good idea. You may also want to consult with a child psychologist or grief counselor to help your child and other family members through a tough time.
When you have time to prepare, it’s a good idea to discuss the approaching loss with your child and answer some of their questions in advance of the event. If you know, for example, that the pet will be euthanized, you can prepare your child by explaining how the process works. You may say that the pet is sick and will never get better, but euthanasia is a way to allow them to pass away peacefully without any pain. If the death is more sudden or unexpected, you’ll want to be as honest as possible about what happened without going into unwanted or traumatizing details—let your child’s questions guide the information you offer.
Here are a few more tips for discussing pet loss with a child:
After the death of a pet, your child may be concerned about other people in the family dying. If your child asks about your death, you might explain it in terms such as, “Every living thing dies, but most people die when they are very old. I plan on being around for a very long time.” It may also be helpful to explain to your child about the concept of “dog years” or “cat years” and explain that different animals have different natural lifespans.
There are a number of age-appropriate books written to help explain the topic of pet death to children. Some popular ones include:
If you know that a pet is nearing the end of its life, purchasing or borrowing a book from the library in advance and reading it together can help prepare your child for the future event.
One of the best ways to cope with loss and grief is to memorialize the departed. Holding a memorial service for your sweet companion or coming up with a creative way for your child and other family members to honor and remember the life of your animal can help tremendously with healing.
Pet memorial ideas might include:
You can explain to your child that grief is born from love: We mourn a loss because we care so deeply for the animal that died. By channeling that love into a memorial service or ritual, you and your child can build a place in your hearts for the pet’s memory to live on forever.
Best Friends is here to guide your family through this difficult time. We offer compassionate cremation services, personalized pet memorial keepsakes, urns and jewelry, and memorial services that can help you say goodbye to your sweet furry family member. Call us at 505.345.5615 or stop by our Albuquerque, New Mexico location to learn more about how we can help.
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