The French poet Anatole France wrote, “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” Pets play a significant role in our lives and in many ways, they are part of our families. Not surprisingly, losing a pet is like losing a family member, and the grieving process can be very painful.
Helping Your Child Cope with a Pet’s Death
For children, however, losing a beloved cat or dog is particularly difficult because this may be the first significant loss they are experiencing. Children also have different concepts of death depending on their age and cognitive development. For example, children generally do not understand the finality of death until they are three to five years old.1 In other words, some younger children may believe that death is reversible or temporary2 .
While adults may recognize that death is a part of life, most children have a different understanding of death, which may impact a child’s grieving process. According to the National Alliance for Grieving Children, adults and children handle grief very differently despite experiencing the same loss. However, there are ways to help your child cope with the loss of a pet. Be sure to consider all factors including your child’s age, overall well-being and maturity, experience with loss (including observing death on TV), prior conversations about loss, the circumstances leading to your pet’s death, and the bond your child had with the pet. Do not hesitate to consult a child psychologist or your child’s pediatrician for advice, especially if your child shows any unusual behavior.
Tips for Coping with The Loss of a Pet
Stick to The Truth: Be Honest, Accurate and Brief
Experts agree that honesty is the best policy. According to Abigail McNamee, PHD, EdD, of City University of New York, parents should avoid euphemisms such as “passed away” or “went to sleep” because children may be confused and become anxious or fearful of going to sleep. Don’t shy away from using the words “dead” and “died” even if you find the words uncomfortable. According to Deborah Serani, Psy.D., research suggests that using the correct words help the grieving process. Also, telling your child that your pet has died and is not coming home may result in a dialog that will allow you to address specific questions your child may have. Dr. Serani also recommends to avoid providing too much information at once. Instead, let your child’s questions guide the conversation.4
Should Children Be Present During Euthanasia of Pet?
The decision to euthanize a pet is never easy, and certainly the veterinarian will have explained all options for the family to consider. Once the decision has been made, adults may be uncertain if they want to be present during the procedure. Of course, whether to have your child present is a separate difficult decision. Generally, Dr. McNamee cautions against having a child under five with the pet during euthanasia. For older children, parents may want to describe the process and ask the child if they want to be present. Again, there is not one “right” way to handle this difficult situation, but consult with professionals and make sure to answer all of your child’s questions honestly and accurately.
Ask your veterinarian to speak to your child and explain the procedure and emphasize that the pet will not be in pain. If you or your child decide not to be present, then consider spending a moment with your pet after the procedure so your child can say goodbye. After your pet’s death, there will be options regarding burial and cremation, so consider involving your child in the decision-making if appropriate.
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Adjusting to Life After the Death of a Pet
Children, like adults, will grieve differently and you should expect a variety of emotions in response to this loss. Be sure to ask your child questions and encourage your child to express their feelings. Remember to focus on the happy memories and find ways to celebrate your pet. The mourning process will most likely last for weeks, months and maybe even years, so be sure to keep an open dialog with your child because feelings may change, and new questions may arise.
Additionally, don’t forget to take care of the adults who are also grieving. Children often look to adults for modeling and behavioral cues, so work on your own grief and allow yourself to process the loss in your own way. For example, Dr. Serani suggests that you shouldn’t hide your emotions and sense of loss from your child, but instead express yourself in a healthy way. As difficult as this process will be, perhaps the final gift from your beloved pet is the chance for you to connect and grow with your child over a significant shared experience.