Helping Children Cope

Helping Children Cope With the Death of a Pet

The death of a pet not only creates grief and sadness, but it can also present a confusing situation for children whose lives have not previously been touched by death. When a pet dies, parents must simultaneously emerge as role models for their children to show that the grieving process is normal, while taking on the difficult task of explaining the loss of the pet.

Each parent knows how much information their particular child can handle, but here are some general guidelines for helping children deal with the death of a pet.

  • Give the child permission to work through their grief.
  • Include the child in everything that is going on.
  • Tell their teacher about the pet's death.
  • Encourage the child to talk freely about the pet.
  • Give the child plenty of hugs and reassurance.
  • Discuss death, dying and grief honestly. Explain the permanency of death without saying things like your pet was "put to sleep." The child may become afraid of going to sleep.

How children deal with death according to age
For adults, the loss of a beloved pet creates a sense of loss and produces a predictable chain of emotions. The stages of grief are typically denial, sadness, depression, guilt, anger and finally, relief or recovery. However, the effects on children vary widely depending upon the child's age and maturity level. The basis for a child's reaction is their ability to understand death.

A child's age determines how well they are able to comprehend death and how they will view the death of a pet.

Two and Three-Year Olds
Children who are two or three years old typically have no understanding of death. They often consider it a form of sleep. They should be told that their pet has died and will not return. Common reactions to this include temporary loss of speech and generalized distress. The two or three year old should be reassured that the pet's failure to return is unrelated to anything the child may have said or done. Typically, a child in this age range will readily accept another pet in place of the dead one.

Four, Five and Six-Year Olds
Children in this age range have some understanding of death, but in a way that relates to a continued existence. The pet may be considered to be living underground while continuing to eat, breathe and play. Alternatively, it may be considered asleep. A return to life may be expected if the child views death as temporary. These children often feel that any anger they had for the pet may be responsible for its death. This view should be discouraged and proven to be false because they may also translate this belief to the death of family members in the past.

Some children also see death as contagious and begin to fear that their own death (or that of others) is imminent. They should be reassured that their death is not likely. Manifestations of grief often take the form of disturbances in bladder and bowel control, eating and sleeping. This is best managed by parent-child discussions that allow the child to express feelings and concerns. Several brief discussions are generally more productive than one or two prolonged sessions.

Seven, Eight and Nine-Year Olds
The irreversibility of death becomes real to these children. They usually do not personalize death, thinking it cannot happen to them. However, some children may develop concerns about death of their parents. They may become very curious about death and its implications. Parents should be ready to respond frankly and honestly to questions that may arise. Several manifestations of grief may occur in these children, including the development of school problems, learning problems, antisocial behavior, hypochondriacal concerns or aggression. Additionally, withdrawal, over attentiveness or clinging behavior may be seen. Based on grief reactions to loss of parents or siblings, it is likely that the symptoms may not occur immediately, but several weeks or months later.

Ten and Eleven-Year Olds
Children in this age range generally understand death as natural, inevitable and universal. As a result, these children often react to death in a manner very similar to adults.

Ways to honor your pet
Veterinary Technician, a publication of the veterinary industry, recommends these ways to help your child honor the memory of a pet:

  • Write a letter to your pet expressing your feelings.
  • Have a proper burial for your pet.
  • Place a bench with a nameplate or inscription beside your pet's grave.
  • Put your pet's ashes in a potted plant, urn or under a favorite tree.
  • Have a portrait of your pet drawn from a favorite photo.
  • Place your pet's identification tags on a key ring, necklace or charm bracelet.
  • Volunteer at a local humane organization.
  • Make a donation in your pet's name to a local veterinary hospital or humane organization.
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