My earliest memories center on our lively, red-haired family member, Donovan. He was the star of our summer outings, ate too much birthday cake, and made holidays chaotic. He was my constant companion and first adventure buddy. I recall vividly, despite my young age of four, when I realized that Donavan was missing. I walked into my mom’s room as she was making her bed and asked where Donovan had gone. Like most moms, she struggled with how to tell her child the beloved family dog died.
Coping with pet loss can be a difficult, yet cathartic time for families. It is often a child’s first experience of death. Parents struggle with if, when, and how to involve children in this process. Instincts tell you to protect them from the pain of pet loss, while logic argues that they should understand that death is a part of life. The grieving process is unique for each family member, but when approached with openness and patience, it provides an opportunity to become closer.
There are many factors to consider when helping children cope with pet loss. First, remember that you are working through this together. As the parent, you are the guide and model, but it is okay to admit your own feelings of grief. Parents often want to hide their sadness in order to keep from burdening children. In most cases, being transparent with your emotions will give them permission to share theirs. Be mindful that your son or daughter may react differently to pet loss than you do, or even than other children of similar age.
Parents seek to understand age-appropriate ways to incorporate children in the illness and death process. Although developmental stages are helpful, your gut will tell you how much they are ready to know. Most children from the age of two will have a sense of grief that comes with pet loss. While they may not be able to comprehend death as a permanent state until after the age of seven, you should be transparent and truthful.
Most of you can recall a story like Donovan’s: mom panicked and said the pet went to live on a farm. Children sense that this explanation is not plausible, which causes them confusion or perhaps more distress. Because they are learning about the permanence of death, they wonder why a part of the family was taken away. They also may link their actions to the pet’s removal from the house. Reassure your children they were not the cause of the pet’s death. For younger ages, provide enough information so they understand their friend was sick. With older children, give more details as necessary.
Children often react in ways that seem idiosyncratic or inappropriate, but this is especially true for teens. Some may act out or express anger in situations not directly related to the loss. Parents want them to confront their feelings directly by talking about the death. If your child is not ready, offering patience with their emotional ups and downs will better serve them. Refrain from having a timeframe for grief resolution.
Create a Memorial
Make your home an accepting environment for all respectful reactions to grief. Some children may accept death readily, having no reaction. For others, reactions may come at a later time. Involving your children in a memorial can help them find peace. Ask them to do something in memory of the pet, like make a collage together or pick out picture frames for a pet corner in your home. Invite them to write a letter to your pet saying goodbye as a way of helping them express their feelings.
Finally, when your family has suffered a pet loss, allow for extra time together. Going for a drive, taking a walk, or similar activities promote conversation naturally. Respond to their thoughts with validation, seeking to know more. If they choose to be silent, soak up the extra moments with your family, feeling gratitude for the time shared. A pet enters into your life for a few precious moments and teaches your children about unconditional love, but their lessons stay in your family’s heart forever.