The death of a cherished pet creates a sense of loss for every family member, and each person will experience a range of emotions, from sadness even to numbness. The effects on children vary widely depending upon age and maturity level. How might you explain a pet’s death to them and help them to cope in a healthy manner?
For many children, the loss of a pet is also their introduction to death and dying, so you may feel immense pressure and heartache seeing how your child suffers. This in and of itself is your first opportunity to demonstrate healthy expression of emotion and coping. You don’t need to hide your emotions from your child, and the experts advise against it. Rather, try verbalizing your feelings calmly and simply to your child, and let them know that it’s okay for them to feel similar emotions. This lays a solid foundation for your conversation about the pet’s death.
Furthermore, no matter how tempting it may be, do not lie. Doing so can only damage your child’s trust in you and cloud their understanding of what happened. Being brief and keeping your explanations simple, however, is perfectly acceptable and will help your child to process the information more easily. Below we’ll explore some tips for talking to children about a pet’s death by age group.
You might expect a child of this age to be stunned, even temporarily losing speech, and to be generally distressed after learning that their pet has passed away. Children who are two or three years old typically have no understanding of death and often consider it a form of sleep. At the same time, they often interpret things literally and so the word “sleep” or the phrase “put to sleep” should be avoided. Tell your child that the pet has died and will not return, and reassure them that whatever they feel as a reaction is perfectly normal and okay. The child should also be reassured that the pet's failure to return is unrelated to anything the child may have said or done.
When your child in this age range finds out that their pet has passed on, they may believe that they somehow caused the pet’s death, especially if they recently had any feelings of anger toward the pet. It’s imperative to refute this immediately to ensure the child doesn’t develop an unhealthy relationship with their emotions. Their grief may take the form of disturbances in bladder and bowel control, eating, and sleeping. Children in this age range have some understanding of death, but in a way that relates to a continued existence or afterlife. Manifestations of this might be belief that their pet is living in the sky, underground or in heaven while continuing to eat, breathe, and play. Alternatively, the child may believe that the pet is asleep at another location. A return to life or to the home may be expected if the child views death as temporary, so it’s important to teach your child that death is permanent and to not hold on to ideas of a return. At this age it’s also possible that your child might think death is contagious and become fearful that others will die, or that they themself could die. Reassure your child that while death is natural and comes to all living beings, it isn’t contagious and their death is a long way away. For children in this age range it is usually best to have several brief discussions about the pet’s death rather than one prolonged discussion.
Around this age, children begin to understand the irreversibility of death. They usually do not personalize death and often think it cannot happen to them. However, some children may develop concerns about death of their parents. They may become very curious about death and its implications, so parents should be ready to respond frankly and honestly to questions that may arise about death as a general phenomenon and about their family members’ mortality. For children in this age range problems at school, withdrawal, hypochondriacal concerns, clinginess, aggression, and even antisocial behavior may be a part of their grieving, especially if they have not previously experienced and developed coping mechanisms for when death occurs. Openness and honesty about the pet’s death from the very beginning, as well as emotional support from loved ones, will help ease this process and help prevent the more extreme grief reactions.
Children in this age range generally understand death as natural, inevitable, and universal. Consequently, these children often react to death in a manner very similar to adults. You can offer consolation to them in much the same way you would a peer, although keeping details to a minimum is still a good idea, especially if the pet’s death was traumatic.
Although this age group also reacts similarly to adults, many adolescents may exhibit various forms of denial. This usually takes the form of a lack of emotional display. Consequently, these young people may be experiencing sincere grief without any outward manifestations. It is important to encourage adolescents to discuss their feelings about death without pressuring them, and while reassuring them that numbness is very common when grieving.
If you are having difficulty with your child’s grief (or your own) please contact NOVA Pets at (703) 378-9791. We can provide assistance and contact numbers for local professionals who can help you and your family, and would be more than happy to do so. For cremation and memorials, we have partnered with The Pet Loss Center who also offers many resources for you and your family during this difficult time. It’s not just our mission to keep your pets happy and healthy, but also to be there for you and your family when your pets pass away.