Dealing with the Loss of a Family Pet
Having a pet is a wonderful experience for many children. Pets offer love and companionship. They offer parents many opportunities to help their children learn valuable life lessons, including respect, responsibility, and the hardest lesson of all—how to deal with loss.
Often the death of a pet is the first intimate experience a child may have with death. When a beloved pet dies, adults and children alike experience a predictable pattern of emotions. Understanding these emotions and how they are at work in your child will help you and help your child through this sad but important lesson.
The Grieving Process
Denial/disbelief—The first stage of grief is generally denial or disbelief. We don’t want to admit that we have lost our companion. We try to think of ways to change the reality of the situation. If you know a pet is in ill health, you can begin to work through this step by being honest with your children. Discussing the death is going to be difficult not only emotionally, but also because your child is not likely to understand all, perhaps even much, of what you are saying.
Euphemisms become a linguistic minefield. Children have trouble differentiating between death and sleep anyway, so equating death to sleep (especially by using a term like “put to sleep”) can frighten a child who will not understand why his falling asleep at night is any different. The best course is the simplest one—directness and honesty, with as few explicit details as possible. Use the words death, dead, died. Present comforting images if they are not in conflict with your beliefs. For instance, Jen Shyrock of Family Paws in Cary, North Carolina, suggests that the image of the lost pet as a new guardian angel for the child seems a particularly comforting one for small children, as well as one they can understand.
Honesty is very important. Though it may seem easier to avoid telling a child her cat has died by saying it ran away, it is a mistake. First, that situation makes the child feel rejected and guilty, as if she did something to cause her cat to leave. Additionally, it unfairly gives the child the idea that someday she will meet her pet again or if she behaves in a certain way, perhaps the animal will return. It also robs your child of an important, though sad and difficult, life experience.
Anger/guilt—Denial is often followed by anger and guilt, especially in younger children who may believe that something they’ve done caused the death of their pet. Children may be angry at the pet for leaving, as though the pet chose to die. Remember that to young children, the world does revolve around them—they see themselves as the center of it all, and as such, will often feel guilty for situations entirely beyond their control. Don’t ridicule this feeling, but address it by allowing your child to express these emotions and assuring them that nothing they did caused the pet’s death.
Bargaining—Closely related to this feeling of guilt and anger is the feeling that somehow they can bargain to “be good” to get the pet back. Again, assure them that nothing they did caused the pet’s death, and nothing they can do can get the pet to come back. Death as permanent is a very difficult concept for young children and extremely upsetting. Be prepared for this.
Depression/sadness—It seems simple, but it is an important part of the grieving process. Allow the children to express their sadness. Let them cry. Don’t diminish the importance of the pet. It’s even OK to let them see you cry, as long as you keep it in control and context. Watch for signs that the sadness is becoming too overwhelming and offer distractions. Children bounce back quickly. If you sense the sadness becoming obsessive, or turning to true depression, do not hesitate to consult an expert counselor. Get advice. Watch particularly for signs of sleep disturbance, appetite changes, and regressions in speech or toilet training.
Acceptance—The final stage of the grieving process is acceptance and recovery. Remember that young children are not going to be truly capable of accepting death in its totality. What we want at this stage is the acceptance that the pet is not coming back, and a return to routine and normal life.
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