When a Pet Dies: Helping Your Young Child Grieve
When your child’s pet dies, it can be a stressful and confusing time. He or she may not behave in a way that seems normal or natural, or their sadness may seem to linger for an extended period of time.
For many kids, the death of a beloved pet can bring nights of sobbing and tearful questions.
Even if the pet seems insignificant to adults, like a goldfish won at a fair, a child may feel as if their world is falling apart and mourn deeply.
On the other hand, some children appear nonchalant and unfazed about the death of a pet cat or dog. They may talk about the death in a matter of fact way and become focused on getting a new animal.
Parents may be struck by their child’s lack of intense feelings and worry that he or she isn’t crying or appearing to mourn. This can be especially true if the parents feel the animal’s loss deeply and are grieving.
Just like adults, no one child grieves in the same way as another. So whether your child reacts with nights of sobbing, pictures drawn, and an elaborate funeral complete with a decorated box and flowers, or if he or she shows very little outward sorrow, your role as a parent is to help your child through their loss at their pace and in their unique way.
Here are some suggestions to help your child when they are grieving the loss of a pet.
- Use empathic words and phrases: You are really sad, aren’t you? You loved Boots very much. You miss him. I miss him too.
- Don’t judge their grieving process or compare it to another child’s. Yes, her sister may not be crying as much or her brother doesn’t bring up the loss every day, but each child works through death on their own timeline.
- You don’t have to have answers. If your child asks questions you don’t know the answer to, it’s fine to say you don’t know.
- Let your child grieve in a way that’s comfortable to them. You can give suggestions; some children like to write letters to their pets or plant flowers or just talk about them. Allow your child to know that you’re there to listen, and it’s okay to feel what they are feeling.
- Find ways to comfort your child. Some kids want to be held, some want space, some want to talk. Let them know that, although they feel really really sad right now, they will feel better. The pain will lessen with time.
What about when a child appears to be grieving an animal that isn’t theirs? You may be surprised that your child can be very sad if a pet that isn’t his or hers dies. Some children react strongly to the loss of a friend’s pet or even an animal that they know through TV or the zoo. Acknowledge their feelings just as you would with their own pet. Don’t downplay their grief; it’s similar to when an adult grieves the loss of a public figure or celebrity. People grow close to those they don’t know personally, and this includes kids.
Should you replace the pet who has died? If so, when? It’s a mistake to think of a new pet as a replacement. If you decide to get another animal, it should be seen as an addition to the family. Just like a person cannot be replaced, neither can a pet. Don’t rush out immediately to buy or adopt a new pet. No animal should be brought into a home without thought and preparation. Having another animal in the home can be healing, as long as its done with care and consideration for both the child and the new pet.
A great resource comes from the rainbow bridge website, which deals specifically with pet loss. Here is a link to a page that deals with children.
The ASPCA has some helpful activities for working with your child through their loss. It can be found here.
Photo from Shutterstock
Harmon, J. (2014). When a Pet Dies: Helping Your Young Child Grieve. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 18, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/your-life/2014/06/when-a-pet-dies-helping-your-young-child-grieve/