This week, we address how children experience and cope with grief after losing a family pet, and how to best support them through the grieving process.

Many children grieve the death of a pet very deeply, but often do not talk about their feelings. They may hold back their feelings because they are so overwhelming, and therefore, appear as though they are not affected by the death. Other times, children may express how they feel through behavior and play, rather than words. Similarly to adults, children’s reactions to death, or impending death, are varied. However, some common reactions to look for include:

  • Shock: the child may not believe it really happened and proceeds with normal activities. This is usually because the thought of death or impending death is too overwhelming.
  • Physical symptoms: The child may have various complaints such as headache or stomachache and fear that this means they, too will die.
  • Anger: Being mostly concerned with personal needs, the child may be angry to be “left all alone” or that God didn’t “make the pet well.”
  • Guilt: The child may think that they caused the death by having been angry, or not spending enough time with the pet who died or feel responsible for not being “better” in some way. Or they may have wished at some time that the pet would die.
  • Anxiety and fear: The child may wonder who will be their “best friend” now or fear someone else in their family will die. They may cling to their parents or ask other significant persons repeatedly if they love them.
  • Regression: The child may go back to behavior they had previously outgrown.

How do I talk to my children about the loss or impending loss of our family pet?

The death of a family pet is often a child’s first experience with loss. This can also be an opportunity to teach your child about coping with the grief that inevitably comes with loving another living creature. Importantly, although losing a pet can be a traumatic experience for a child, they may feel and show it differently than adults.   How parents handle the loss, or impending loss of the pet, and how they talk to their children about it, can have a lasting impact on the child. Many parents may try to protect their child by leaving them out of discussions about the pet’s impending death. This can leave children felling anxious, confused, and alone during a time when they most need the help and reassurance of those around them.

For parents who would like additional support through this process, Georgetown Psychology Associates offers phone and in-person consultations to help you talk to your children about the loss, or chronic illness of your family pet.

Some general tips also include:

  • Be as honest as possible from the start
  • Do not use expressions such as “getting put to sleep” as they can be confusing for younger children
  • Let your child see you express your own grief at the loss of the pet
  • Encourage your child to express their feelings openly
  • Reassure your child that they were not responsible for the pet’s death (children often mistakenly think that they are somehow responsible)
  • Involve your child in decisions related to the pet’s illness or death if possible
  • Understand that the emotional response of each child may vary based on age, developmental level, and relationship with the pet
  • Recognize the pet’s death as a significant loss; do not trivialize or minimize your child’s feelings
  • Talk to each child about what they are thinking and feeling
  • Be open and receptive to your child’s questions
  • Do not rush to get a “replacement pet”
  • Involve your child in a good-bye ceremony and in memorializing the pet

When should I seek professional help?

For some children, coping with the loss, or impending loss of a pet, can be very overwhelming. If your child’s feelings of sorrow or guilt have not lessened after several weeks, or if they are getting in the way of their ability to engage in family, social, academic, or extracurricular activities, you may wish to seek professional support. Reaching out to a counselor for one-on-one, group, or family grief counseling sessions can help a child get through this very touch time in a healthy way. Learning how to process difficult feelings surrounding their pets death can also help prepare the child to deal with future loses in adaptive ways.

Some signs to watch for in grieving children:

  • An extended period of depression – the child may lose interest in daily activities and events, be more irritable, exhibit behavior problems, or isolating from others
  • Inability to sleep, loss of appetite, prolonged fear of being alone
  • Acting much younger than their age for an extended period
  • Excessively talking about the pet’s death or impending death, continued crying, repeated statements of wanting to join the pet in death
  • Withdrawal from friends
  • Sharp drop in school performance or refusal to attend school

Where can I turn for help?

At Georgetown Psychology Associates, we know just how difficult the process of losing a pet can be for both children and their families. We offer a range of services to help you, your family, and your children heal in a meaningful way. To learn more, click here.