Our pets live relatively short lives. For many of us who love our pets, their death can affect some of us even more than the death of a relative or friend. The death of a pet leaves few people totally untouched. People love their pets and consider them members of their family: Caregivers celebrate their pets’ birthdays, confide in their animals, and carry pictures of them in their wallets.
So when your beloved pet dies, it’s not unusual to feel overwhelmed by the intensity of your sorrow. But understanding how you grieve and finding ways to cope with your loss can bring you closer to the day when memories bring smiles instead of tears.
For many children, their first real experience with loss occurs when a pet dies. When a pet dies, children need consolation, love, support, and affection more than they need complicated medical or scientific explanations. Children’s reactions to the death of a pet will depend upon their age and developmental level. Children 3 to 5 years of age see death as temporary and potentially reversible. Between ages 6 and 8, children begin to develop a more realistic understanding of the nature and consequences of death. Generally, it is not until 9 years of age that children fully understand that death is permanent and final. For this reason, very young children should be told that when a pet dies, it stops moving, doesn’t see or hear anymore, and won’t wake up again. They may need to have this explanation repeated to them several times.
The loss of a pet may be a child’s first experience with death. The child may blame himself, his parents, or the veterinarian for not saving the pet. And he/she may feel guilty, depressed, and frightened that others he loves may be taken from him. Trying to protect your child by saying the pet ran away could cause your child to expect the pet’s return and feel betrayed after discovering the truth. Expressing your own grief may reassure your child that sadness is okay and help him work through his feelings. There are many ways parents can tell their children that a pet has died. It is often helpful to make children as comfortable as possible (use a soothing voice, hold their hand or put an arm around them) and to tell them in a familiar setting. It is also important to be honest when telling children that a pet has died. Trying to protect children with vague or inaccurate explanations can create anxiety, confusion, and mistrust.
Children often have questions after a pet dies, including: Why did my pet die? Is it my fault? Where does my pet’s body go? Will I ever see my pet again? If I wish hard and am really good can I make my pet come back? Does death last forever? It is important to answer such questions simply, but honestly.
Children may experience sadness, anger, fear, denial, and guilt when their pet dies. They may also be jealous of friends with pets. The grief process is as individual as the person, lasting days for one person or years for another.
When a pet is sick or dying, spend time talking with your child about his/her feelings. If possible, it is helpful to have the child say goodbye before the pet dies. Parents can serve as models by sharing their feelings with their children. Let your child know it is normal to miss pets after they die and encourage the youngster to come to you with questions or for reassurance and comfort.
There is no best way for children to mourn their pets. They need to be given time to remember their pets. It helps to talk about the pet with friends and family. Mourning a pet has to be done in a child’s own way. After a pet has died, children may want to bury the pet, make a memorial, or have a ceremony. Other children may write poems and stories, or make drawings of the pet. It is up to you, as the parent, to decide whether to immediately bring home another pet. There is no replacement for the one who has died but a good way to overcome your pain is to help another pet. There are so many beautiful animal companions just waiting for a wonderful parent like you and a happy home! The shelters are filled with them. You can save a life and they can help to save you. Animal companions bring so much joy and happiness that it’s often hard to decide whose helping whom the most. They’ll help to distract you from your loss.
The death of a pet may cause a child to remember other painful losses, or upsetting events. A child who appears to be overwhelmed by their grief and not able to function in their normal routine may benefit from an evaluation by a child and adolescent psychiatrist or other qualified mental health professional. While grief is a personal experience, you need not face this loss alone. Many forms of support are available, including pet bereavement counseling services, pet-loss support hotlines, local or on-line Internet bereavement groups, books, videos, and magazine articles. Some of the many resources on the Internet for pet loss are www.pet-loss.net which includes a state-by-state directory of support groups, counselors and pet cemeteries. Another site is www.in-memory-of-pets.com, which has tributes, poems and other resources.
There is no “right” way to grieve. It is important to face your personal loss honestly. Bring closure to the sad event of losing your beloved pet in a way that will be most meaningful to you. The following steps will help. If you are having an exceptionally difficult time, ask your veterinarian to recommend a grief support resource.
- Recognize the reality of your loss.
- Say goodbye
- Allow time for grieving
- Express your feelings without embarrassment
- Memorialize your pet
- Celebrate what your pet meant to you
- Cherish memories of your time together
We can never forget or replace the radiant place that our pet’s love holds in our hearts. But we can hold on tight to the memories of how they taught us to live, love and laugh.
Wishing you peace and healing,