Helping children after the death of a pet

Remembering the good times ...
Remembering the good times ... Photo: Getty Imges

Deciding to buy a pet can be a harrowing experience for parents, but the loss or death of a pet has the potential to trigger conflicting emotional reactions from different family members. Children under the age of 5 typically react differently to the death of a pet compared to school-aged children, as do adolescents and adults. Anger and outrage are common when school-aged children are told about a sudden loss. Parents often bare the brunt of blame or may be accused of not caring, should they attempt to help their child to accept or come to terms with their loss. It can be difficult to know how to best support children in the loss of a pet, while managing your own shock or grief reactions.

Age and life experience influences how we deal with grief and loss. For children under 5, the loss of a pet is likely to be their first experience of death and dying; and learning about the life cycle has the potential to spark curiosity and endless questions. The death of a pet may signify the influx of new knowledge and toddlers typically want to share their new insights with pre-school teachers, neighbours and anyone else who cares to listen! Parents are encouraged to use simple terms or specialized children’s books to explain the life cycle of animals, using pictures where possible. Recommended readings for children are listed below. 

In general, adolescents with a long-term attachment to their pet are likely to take longer to grieve the loss of a pet. Many adolescents grow up with the family dog and when their first pet dies, the experience is akin to losing a significant part of their childhood. Parents should monitor the grief reactions of adolescents closely in regard to changes in sleeping patterns, social activity and eating habits. Adolescents are often more sensitive in comparison to younger children and mortality is an issue with the potential to trigger a broad range of emotions - a family pet is often a primary source of comfort for adolescents and communicating their experience of grief is likely to be difficult. Encourage older children and adolescents to take part in the process of planning a pet cremation or funeral where appropriate.

Your local vet will have information regarding services to collect and cremate deceased family pets, such as dogs, cats or rabbits. Headstones or memorial boxes can also be made to order and returned to the family with ashes enclosed. Some pet owners create heirlooms with photos of their pets to remember them fondly. Children may also respond positively to creating a memory box of items, such as their pet’s collar, name tag or similar, as a keep sake. Being part of the process and helping to make choices after the death of a pet is considered therapeutic and increases a sense of control for children over the age of 8 years. Younger children would do well to pick flowers or draw a picture to be included in the memory box or in a family ceremony.

Avoid lying to children by quickly replacing a pet without telling them - the death of a pet is an opportunity to learn about life and shouldn’t be hidden from young people. Allow time for each family member to process their loss before purchasing or discussing the idea of a new pet. Replacing an animal may be easy in some families, however, for other families pets may be irreplaceable. A family discussion is recommended to talk about the death of a pet and how to move forward. The following Top 5 tips for parents were developed to help families overcome grief and loss.

1. As a parent, consider your own emotional reactions in the presence of children. A crying adult can be unsettling for children. Talk to your child calmly after absorbing your own initial grief reactions, such as shock and anger.

2. Pull together as a family and consider how you all may wish to honor the life of your pet. Children should have equal input and all ideas should contribute to the final send-off. Agree on a list of favourite songs, rather than one, or a place memorial items in more than one location to ensure you take everybody’s wishes into consideration.

3. Avoid minimizing the loss of a pet. Children are likely to react negatively to a parent or sibling suggesting their reaction is somehow inappropriate. Individual responses to death are diverse and the time required to process grief varies from person to person.

4. Take time to remember the life of your pet and cherish the special memories collected over time. The relationship individuals share with their pets is very personal and each family member is likely to have different ideas to offer. Remembering the details of a good life, by talking, drawing or writing, is part of processing grief and loss.

5. Consider the implications of buying a pet carefully. Children considered emotionally reactive, sensitive to loss or separation anxiety may not be suited to pet ownership. Helping to take care of a neighbour’s pet may help to better prepare children for this new life experience.

QK recommended readings from the Quirky Kid Shoppe include: