It is important to remain mindful that each child will process the loss very differently. Always be honest about your feelings. It is okay for them to see that you are sad as it gives your child(ren) permission to be sad as well. For some children, especially for an only child, they may view their pet as their closest friend, confidant, or even as their sibling. For many children losing a pet will be their first experience with death. Keeping an open and age-appropriate dialogue will help to ease the loss for both you and your children.
Loss of a pet can have many faces such as:
The pet running away;
Having to give the pet away due to a life altering situation (financial, illness of a family member, moving or fostering).
Birth to 2 years
It has been shown through studies that an infant reacts to their surroundings. If the environment is filled with sadness and stress the infant may respond by:
Difficult to comfort,
Difficult getting them to sleep or excessive sleeping,
Clinging or not wanting to be held.
You can help your infant through this sad and stressful time by holding, rocking, touching, hugging as well as maintaining your normal daily routine.
2 to 5 years
Children at this stage are much more aware of their surroundings than we give them credit for. They are always watching, mimicking and taking cues from their caregivers. In short, if you are upset due to your pet’s loss, most likely your children will take notice and begin to act out.
Some of the behaviours your children may exhibit:
More crying than usual;
Difficulty getting them to bed; and
It is common for many caregivers to use the term “put to sleep” rather than euthanize. This confuses the child, as well it reinforces the belief that their pet is only asleep and will be returning home. It is important for the child to understand that the pet is not asleep and will not be returning home. As the above age group does not understand the finality of death or loss, they may ask you:
When is their pet returning?
Is their pet living somewhere else?
Is their pet only sleeping?
When is their pet going to wake up?
How is their pet going to find his/her way home?
6 to 11 years
Children at the above age are able to understand that death is final. They understand that the pet is gone and will not be coming back home and may show periodic signs of grief. As well, this age group believes that death can be avoided and only happens to other people/families. Some children believe that their pet died because they (the child) did something bad and the death of the pet is a punishment. Due to this belief, it is possible they could begin to display anger toward the deceased pet, voice that they didn’t want the pet and are glad that it is now gone. To help a child through these feelings, you can suggest that they:
Draw pictures of the pet;
Write a letter to the pet;
Do a journal on how they are feeling.
Please note that all of the aforementioned belongs to the child and should be shared only if the child communicates interest in doing so.
Always do your best to make yourself available should the child want to talk and/or needs a hug. Keep their days normal and positive.
12 to 17 years
This age group may have many questions to ask about loss. Having their pet die may bring up feelings of fear and uncertainty regarding loss of their caregivers. It is important to let them express what they are feeling and to validate their feelings, to assure them that should anything happen they are well taken care of and that the majority of people live for a long time.
When the pet is sick and/or elderly and the discussion of euthanizing is brought to “the table”, it is important that this age group be part of the discussion. Not everyone will be willing and ready to euthanize, but it is important that everyone’s views are heard and respected.
Losing a pet can trigger past losses that may not have been completely worked through, such as a loss of a family member, friendships, schools, moving from a neighbourhood and divorce. They may come to you with questions, some harder to answer than others. Always be patient, honest and sensitive. You may not always have all the answers and that is okay, be honest about that as well. It is important to remember that the pet they have just lost may have been the one thing that comforted them during the past losses; no longer having the pet can leave them feeling extremely sad and lonely. They may exhibit their emotions by experiencing anxiety, difficulty with sleeping, not eating or over-eating, poor school grades and not wanting to socialize with friends and/or family. It is important to let them know that even though they have lost their pet, they are allowed to enjoy life and their pet would want them to do so. You can suggest ways for them to honour their pet by journaling, drawing, writing a letter or inviting friends and family (whom they feel safe with) to memoriam for the pet. Remember, their loss is deep, raw and genuine, for many this was their best friend.
WHAT TO SAY AND WHAT NOT TO SAY TO A CHILD WHO HAS LOST THEIR PET
What to say:
Do you want to talk about how you are feeling?
I am so sorry.
I love you.
I care how you are feeling.
Do you want to talk about the memories we have regarding… (pet’s name)?
Do you want to tell me about your pet?
I am sure that this is very difficult for you, do you want to share?
As caregivers, (whether we are parents, grandparents, nanny, teacher, etc.) we want to make it all better, no one enjoys watching a child suffer, whether the pain is physical or emotional. However, it is important to allow them to walk through their grief journey; it allows them to find resolve and have a healthy outcome. If they come to you with questions, have an open and honest (age appropriate) conversation with them. Their curiosity is a healthy sign that they are finding their way through their grief journey.
What not to say:
You can get another pet to replace (pet’s name).
At least you still have (name of any other pet in the home).
God needed to take him home.
At least your pet is no longer in pain.
Lots of people lose a pet.
It was just a pet.
You are a big boy/girl, you need to be brave.
I have always believed that less is more, if you are not sure what the proper thing to say is, say nothing and just give a hug or hold a hand.
Below is a list of books to assist you and your child(ren) through their grief journey.
Children and Pet Loss Book List
Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant (age 3 -5)
Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant (age 3 – 5)
Goodbye Mousie by Robie H. Harris (age 3 -5)
I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm (age 3 -7)
Saying Goodbye to Lulu by Corinne Demas (age 4 and up)
The Rough Patch by Brian Lies (age 4 and up)
For Every Dog an Angel by Christine Davis (age 4 and up)
Paw Prints in Heaven (age 4 and up)
The Rainbow Bridge…A Dog’s Story by Judith Kristen (age 4 and up)
Jim’s Dog Muffins by Miriam Cohen (age 4 – 8)
Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley (age 4 – 8)
The Forever Dog by Bill Cochran (age 4 – 8)
Goodbye Mog by Judith Kerr (age 5 and up)
A Stone for Sascha by Aaron Becker (age 5 and up)
Paw Prints in the Stars: A Farewell and Journal for a Beloved Pet by Warren Hanson (age 5 and up)
The Day Tiger Rose Said Goodbye by Jane Yolen (age 6 and up)
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Erik Bleguad (age 6 – 9)
Toby by Margaret Wild (age 6 – 12)
Murphy & Kate by Ellen Howard (age 7 – 12)
Memories of You by Erainna Winnette (age 7 – 12)
Kate the Ghost Dog: Coping with the Death of a Pet by Wayne L. Wilson (age 8 – 13)
Lifetime: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie
Bereaved Children and Teens: A Support Guide for Parents and Professionals by Earl A. Grollman