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Goodbye to a friend: helping children cope with the loss of a pet

There is something deeply profound in the grief that some children feel following the death of a beloved pet. When we think about literary attempts to depict the heartfelt bond between children and their pets, we think of "Lassie Come Home" or "The Incredible Journey," "Old Yeller" and "National Velvet." 

The ferocity with which children can bond with their pets can be surprisingly intense. While adults have the maturity to more adequately distinguish the difference between the love they feel for people and the love they feel for pets, for a child, the lines can be less clear. Adults have had the opportunity to secure many personal friendships throughout their lifetimes. But for a child, their pet may be their one and only true friend.

The word "friend" implies companionship, protection, unconditional love, acceptance and loyalty. For many children these are the very attributes they feel toward their pet. It is particularly disturbing, therefore, for a child to be told "It's only a dog." In the mind of a child, their beloved friend is gone and they may be terribly conflicted between responding like a grown up and coming to terms with the grief and sadness they are feeling.

For some children, it may be their first encounter with death or the first time they witness their parents' response to sadness and loss. Parents need to realize that pet loss can bring about intense fears and anxiety for an emotionally inexperienced and grieving child.

Your child may go through the five stages of grief

The grieving process for all of us with pet loss tends to follow the same stages of grief for the loss of human loved ones (denial, bargaining, anger, sadness, and acceptance). The difference in a child's grieving process is that it is less predictable than that of adults. The path from denial to acceptance varies according to the age of the child and his or her maturity level. If you are a parent faced with helping your child grieve the death of a pet, it is important for you to understand that your child's capacity to comprehend death in general dictates their response to the experience of losing their pet.

For example, two or three year olds have developed no concept of death, while a six year old may fear death is contagious. Older children may respond with deep sadness and withdrawal. If your child was the pet's caretaker, he may feel overwhelming guilt and responsibility if the pet is sick, dying, or is killed. In this instance, your child may need constant reassurance that he is not at fault. As parents, we have to listen to our children and validate their feelings whether they make sense to us or not.

Honesty is always the best policy

A good way to explain death to a child is by being both truthful and simple. Young people need to hear that death is natural, inevitable, final and universal. It's never a good idea to tell them that God took their loved one or pet, or that "they are in a better place now." Remember that children are concrete thinkers and take things you say literally. If a child hears that their pet is "lost," they will want to look for it. They need to hear that their pet is dead and that means they are not coming back.

Similarly, it's generally unwise to tell your child you will replace their pet too quickly. Children need time to grieve the loss of their pet and should be allowed extra time throughout the process of grieving to linger wherever they need to along their way. As a parent, you may be grieving along with your child for a much-loved family pet.

The important thing is to talk to your child and help them identify their feelings. If their thoughts are unrealistic or fantasized, explain to them in realistic terms what is happening. Your child will usually let you know when he or she is recovering. If you sense you need outside help, always allow yourself to seek out the advice of a professional grief counselor.

What if your pet needs to be euthanized?

One of most difficult things for a child to understand is when their pet must be euthanized. Generally it's best to include the child in the decision to euthanize a dying pet, but refrain from allowing them to participate in watching the death. Similarly, viewing their pet's dead body may only prove to disturb your child further. Perhaps a better way for your child to say goodbye to their friend is for them to be allowed to help bury their pet (or scatter their ashes).

This allows for the permanence of the death to be felt while also encouraging the child to bid their pet farewell. If you decide on the burial of your pet in a pet cemetery, have your child participate in choosing the headstone and encourage them to visit the gravesite if they wish. Always keep pictures of your pet; this will allow both you and your child to remember and acknowledge the place the pet had in his or her young life.

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Further sources of information

You may find our other articles in the Pet loss section helpful too.

For biodegradable and more traditional cremation urns, including pet urns, we recommend Richard Lamb New Traditions Funerals.

Visit our Amazon store to find books to help you cope with pet loss.


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