Losing a Pet: Helping your child cope with grief
This week our family lost a cherished furry member of our family. It was hard on everyone.
Our sweet beagle had been ill for a while, fighting cancer for a number of years. While we knew this day was coming it also happened very quickly. She took a sudden turn and it became obvious that she was not able to keep going.
Speaking to our children about the situation made me think about how important it is to share some ideas with other parents about how to handle the loss of a furry friend. There are a lot of ideas out there and I encourage parents to find what they feel is most appropriate based on their child's age and personality.
Your child's age will be a large factor in this first important step. Obviously what you explain to a two year old is going to be different than what you say to a 12 year old. The detail that you provide will be different, for example you may say to a two year old that your pet was sick, but to a 12 year old you may explain that they were sick and....(add in the details that are going to help them better understand the situation). This can be easier when you know that the animal passing is something expected. Honesty is important when an animal passes unexpectedly as well.
Children may have questions and you should strive to be honest in your responses.
It is also okay to be honest with your chlidren about your feelings about grief. It will help them to know that they are not alone in their sadness.
Name emotions and allow space for them
Children do not always have the language to identify what they are feeling. We can help them cope by naming the feelings for them. Even more important is allowing your child the space to feel those feelings. Sit with them as they cry. You don't have to fix it. It is good for them to feel their sadness, and feel relief from it as they let out those emotions.
Be okay with it if they don't express sadness, and don't shame them if they appear indifferent. Everyone deals with grief in different ways. You also may be more impacted by the loss of the pet than they are and that's okay.
Some feelings children may experience include:
Allow space to talk about their pet
Remembering all the times with their pet can help a child come to terms with the loss. Allow them to remember both good times and bad. Story-telling is a great way for children of all ages to process their grief and learn to cope with the loss of their pet. This may be more frequent at the beginning but can last for many months.
Have a memorial service
Some children, and adults, benefit from having a memorial service for their pet. If old enough, let your child take part in it, preparing something to say, picking flowers, making pictures, or maybe some other contribution that they can think of (children are very creative and allowing them the space to be creative while they mourn can be very healing).
Create a way for them to be remembered
Allow your child to draw a picture. Get them a stuffed animal that reminds them of their pet. Have a special place in the yard that is for the pet, maybe marking it will a rock or flower or yard decor. Print out a picture(s) for your child to look at when they want to. Finding ways to allow your child to remember their pet can help them cope with the loss.
Reassure them that their grief is temporary
It hurts to lose your pet, and the pain they feel can be very intense and real. We need to validate that experience and allow them the space to feel it, and, we can also provide reassurance around the fact that these feelings don't last forever. We will always love and miss our pet but the pain won't always be this intense.
Follow your child's lead
Sometimes we as adults place more emphasis on things than our child needs. Follow your child's lead and let them determine how much focus needs to be placed on their grief process and feelings. We can check in and see how they are feeling and we can provide the space to talk whenever they want to. Be there to support your child without placing pressure of expectations on them.
Young children may not understand the permanency of death. They may not know what it is to die or pass away, and they may believe that their pet will return. They may ask questions, repeatedly, about where their pet is and why they are not there. They may ask for the pet, or call out for them during everyday routines.
Elementary aged children may feel anxious or worried or fearful. They may fear others dying and they may have a belief that they did something to cause it.
While our teens may or may not talk about their grief, losing a pet during adolescence can be a very emotional experience.
No matter the age, our children will be impacted by the loss of a furry family member. Whether it is by picking up on our sadness and grief, or experiencing it for themselves. There are many ways to help them cope and what works best will be dependent on their age and personality. What is important is that we are there to love and support them through the grief and healing process, and that we help them remember the love they shared with their pet.
Our family is forever changed by the absence of our sweet dog, who welcomed each additional pet and child into our family with love and excitement. There will never be another quite like her and we will all miss her dearly.