Anyone old enough to love, is old enough to grieve. Children form strong
attachments to family pets. They talk to them, take care of them, pet them and often look at family pets as siblings or playmates. Children grieve differently from adults and how they grieve depends on their age, emotional development and the strength of the bond they have formed.
For many children, the death of a pet is their first experience with loss. Parents are their models and guides through the grieving process. It is therefore important that parents understand the bereavement processes for themselves in order to help their children with their grief.
Age related Issues
2-3 years of age
At this age children do not have an understanding of death.
It is important at this age that they are reassured that they did not do anything to cause the death of their pet.
It is best to tell children at this age: When a pet dies, it stops moving, doesn’t hear of see and will not wake up again.
Don’t be distressed if you need to repeat this type of statement several times.
3-5 years of age
Children of this age have some concept of death, but they can see death as temporary or possible reversible.
As a sign of grief disturbances, one might see bowel or badder disturbances. Other changes may include differences in playing, eating and sleeping.
Part of the grieving process will be the repetition of questions surrounding the death of their pet.
Watch out for: Children at this age may see death as contagious and fear their own death. And sometimes they will think that the reason the pet died was because they were angry at it.
6-8 years of age
Children have a more realistic view of death although they may not have a complete understanding that pets have different life spans or that euthanasia was the best option.
9-11 years of age
At this age children understand that death is irreversible and happens to all living things.
Watch for changes in social behavior, problems in school, aggression, withdrawal or clinging.
Adolescents seem to react similarly to the way adults react to grief. However there maybe more swings in the spectrum of emotions from unconcerned to childlike.
There can be unique challenges for the young adult losing a family pet whom they may have grown up with. Many have either left home either living on their own, away at college or spending more time with work, friends and school. They may have feeling of guilt for abandoning their pets. If they are away, they maybe unable to say goodbye.
Memorials can help the grieving child and adult accept that the pet is now a beloved memory.
Some suggestions for children
Draw a picture of their pet and share what the picture means.
Create a Scrape book
If the pet is cremated have a special ceremony if the ashes are scatted, or place it in the back yard and plant a tree
If the pet is buried, wrap the body in a special shroud or casket.
Some Important Don’ts with Children
Don’t tell children to be “Strong” or criticize their tears
Don’t tell them how to feel
Don’t use the phrase “put to sleep”. This can create bedtime and sleeping problems.
Children need to know that parents want to understand their feelings and point of view. This communicates the feelings that they are worthwhile and their feelings are respected.
Be honest, simple and supportive.
Children don’t need medical or scientific explanations but they will need their questions answered several times.
Allow children to grieve in their own way.
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