How children grieve and process the loss of their pets

Some children describe their pets as siblings or best friends, so how do they grieve the loss of a much loved pet?
Some children describe their pets as siblings or best friends, so how do they grieve the loss of a much loved pet? Photo: Jena Ardell

If you've been through the pain of losing a family pet, you'll know just how heart-wrenching it can be. For many little ones it's their first experience of death – of grief and loss.

New research, conducted at Cansius College, Buffalo, NY, explored exactly what it means for children to lose a beloved pet – how they make sense of death and their feelings and responses to it.

Researcher, Joshua Russell, conducted a series of one-on-one interviews with children between six and 13 years old. The interviews confirmed something many of us know to be true: pets are more than just animals to our kids.

"They often see themselves as the centre of their pets' affections," said Russell in a statement."They describe their pets as siblings or best friends with whom they have strong connections."

For one boy Russell interviewed, 13-year-old Neville, the pain of losing his cat, two years earlier, was still strong. When his pet was stuck by a car he told the researcher that he felt his life was "over".

Russell also found that children have what he calls a "distinct sense of existential fairness" around whether a pet lives for an appropriate length of time. Kids understand, for example, that fish and hamsters don't live very long, but that dogs, cats and rabbits should have a longer lifespan.

Through the interviews, Russell discovered that children process the loss of their pets differently, depending on the circumstances of their deaths. Kids whose pets were old when they died, found the loss easier to accept than those whose pets died unexpectedly.

For these children, Russell explained, the loss was described as "emotionally and morally unfair" and was harder to reconcile.

While receiving support from family and friends helped children cope with their grief, getting a new pet prompted mixed feelings.

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"There were those who felt it would be wrong to move on to a new pet because they had to honor their relationships with the deceased one," Russell said. Others however, linked getting a new pet to "feeling better".

"They explained it as an opportunity to start over and suggested that replacing a companion animal is more about beginning a new relationship than erasing memories of an old one," he said.

"Sometimes death is tragic, like when a cat is run over by a car. But ultimately, death is part of life and life does go on," said 13-year-old Neville, 

According to the Trauma and Grief Network, which is part of the Australian National University, the grief of losing a pet can result in children displaying a number of different feelings including: anger, despair, sadness and confusion.

A child's understanding of death changes as they grow older – which can also affect their response to losing a pet.

"Children often experience grief in waves that comes and go," they write. "Some children may initially appear to be not affected by grief, and may become distressed later on."

The Trauma and Grief Network offers the following tips for parents:

  • It is important to talk to your child in an open and honest way. Avoid vague language such as telling kids that their pet has "gone away". They may find out about the death from someone else, which could jeopardise their trust and willingness to discuss their feelings.
  • Speak to your child in a caring and compassionate way – reinforcing that it's okay to feel sad, angry and confused. Let them know that you feel sad, too but that these feelings will pass.
  • Give kids physical comfort if they want it and allow them space and time to ask questions.
  • For some children, having a photo of their pet, doing a drawing or having a goodbye ceremony at home can also help them to cope with grief.