Helping your kids through the loss of a pet

Saying goodbye to your best friend ...
Saying goodbye to your best friend ... 

We lost the beloved family pooch last week, and while I was sad, I was a little glad for old fellow – 15 years is a long slog, especially with our five year old enthusiastically hanging off his arthritic body for the last few.

The faithful Fletch had been our seven-year-old son’s loyal and unconditionally loved confidante since before our little man was even born – as a younger dog, he used to lay with his head on my belly and listen to the movements and heartbeat when I was pregnant, and has followed and protected our son ever since.

Dealing with the loss of a pet as an adult is hard, but trying to help your children navigate their way through something so sad and foreign to them is heart breaking, and it can leave you feeling at a loss of what to say to make them feel better. “Every child shares a unique relationship with their pet, and they are usually among our children’s closest friends - and a legitimate member of their immediate family,” says psychologist Jenny Chapman. “The trick is to never minimize your kids’ feelings or their loss, and if they don’t appear to be coping some weeks after the loss, seeking professional help is important,” says Chapman.

Children will move through the same stages of grief as an adult – shock, denial, bargaining, anger, guilt and acceptance are all common, and each stage will take its own time, or may not even be apparent at all. “It’s important not to assume that they will take a predetermined period of time, to adjust to their loss,” Chapman says.

There are plenty of ways you can help your child move through the experience:

Always remember to be patient ... they may come back to the subject of the death of their pet repeatedly ...

  • Be guided by their questions, or what they talk about, to gauge how much to tell them.
  • Reassure them their pet loved them.
  • Be honest with your own sadness. This helps your child feel comfortable and confident of their own feelings. Hiding your feelings may encourage them to hide their own, and worry that their feelings are not normal.
  • Have family discussions about your pet and how you are all feeling.
  • Tell your child’s teacher, or other significant others that they spend time with, that their pet has died, this way they can help your child through their grief when they aren’t with you.

“Always remember to be patient – they may come back to the subject of the death of their pet repeatedly,” says Chapman.

When it comes to remembering your pet, there are a range of things you can do to help your children remember their pet in a positive way. Chapman says you should strengthen the positive memories by bringing out the happy snaps and encouraging your child to draw pictures of their pet, or write a book, song or poem with your child focusing on their positive times with their pet.

Some kids will enjoy pulling together a memorial service. For us, we ran the gamut. We drew; we flipped through photo albums and shared stories. When we got Fletchers ashes back, we took him to his favourite corner on our local café strip, where he was a bit of a regular (nice and early though, no one wants a side of those sprinkles with their morning latte) and spread his ashes with the boys. They love knowing he’ll continue to be part of the local scene, something he loved while he was with us.