Roughly four out of 10 children have no idea what it's like to live in a home without a pet. As many as 90 percent of children have pets at some point in their lives. What happens, though, when a child's beloved pet dies? How can parents offer grief support to children when they might be grieving as well?
More than two-thirds of American homes have at least one pet, usually a dog or cat. The vast majority of pet owners say that their pets are part of the family. Grief over losing a pet can last a year for adults and can even affect their health.
For children, losing a pet can be as painful as losing a relative. While they might see aunts and uncles once or twice a year, children spend every day with their pets. Years after their pets die, many children still describe the day their pet passed as "the worst day of their lives."
Should children have pets?
No parent wants to see their children in pain. So if it's almost inevitable that a pet is going to die, why would parents risk subjecting their children to the worst day of their lives? Because pets play vital roles in children's emotional and social development.
Pet ownership offers children:
- A sense of security
- Love and affection
- A sense of responsibility
- Emotional and cognitive development
In addition, pets can help children learn critical lessons about life and death.
How to help children navigate the loss of a pet
When losing a beloved family pet, grief is inevitable. However, when handled in an age-appropriate manner, it can provide healthy emotional coping tools for children to carry throughout their lives.
If you have an elderly or sick pet, this is an excellent time to talk to prepare your children. Tell your children that your pet is old and that because it won't be with you for much longer, the children should give the pet some extra love.
Try to create as many memories as possible. Is your pet up for a beach day or a gentle walk through a park? How about a party in the pet's honor? Whatever you do, take lots of pictures.
When a child is under four, grief won't register as it might when older. Very young children can't understand death, but they do feel a sense of loss. Whatever you do, don't tell your children that the pet had to be "put to sleep." It could make them fear sleep, and it might lead them to believe that their pet just needs to wake up.
Instead, be more direct. Gently explain that your family pet has died and won't be coming back. Getting another pet might help alleviate the sense of loss, but it depends on the child's maturity level and attachment to the pet.
There are plenty of resources you can find online, or you can read your children a book, such as "Until We Meet Again."
When they're between four and six years old, children have a general concept of death. They may have lost a grandparent or great grandparent, or they may have seen people die on T.V. However, they probably don't understand that death is permanent.
At that age, children are also just beginning to understand how their actions affect others. So they might blame themselves for their pet's death, especially if they got angry at the pet or were chastised for being too rough with them.
Your children might develop a fear of death, which can manifest in unexpected ways, such as stomach pain, nightmares, and incontinence. Sit down and speak with your children. Express your sadness but explain that they have nothing to fear. Experts recommend multiple short discussions instead of a single long one.
Children begin to process death in a more adult way at ages seven through nine. They likely know that death is final and will not happen to them anytime soon. However, a pet's death could ignite fear that your death is imminent.
Children at this age might act out or experience unusual behaviors, such as social problems, learning problems, and clinginess. Behavioral issues could manifest weeks or months after the pet's death, so be aware, and if necessary, talk to a counselor.
Ages 10 and up
Pre-teens and teens generally have a more realistic view of death. They know it's permanent and that they don't need to fear its inevitability. However, their grief comes out in various ways, which can include behavioral or school problems.
Talk to your older children and ask them to express their emotions. You can suggest that they write about their pet in a journal or a short story.
How to memorialize a pet
Regardless of your childrens' ages, memorialization is a healthy way to help everyone in the family manage grief. If your pet impacted friends' or relatives' lives, invite them as well. A pet memorial can be as formal or informal as you choose. Here are some ideas:
- Write an obituary – Write an obituary that includes the pet's name and some other basic information, along with fond memories. Encourage everyone in the family to contribute and keep the memorial in a safe place so you can read it when the mood strikes.
- Put your pet to rest – There are several options for putting your pet to rest, including pet cemeteries or your backyard.
- Spread your pet's ashes – If you choose to cremate your pet, you can spread all the ashes in one place, or you can divide them up. Perhaps you can spread some in their favorite place and keep the rest in a gorgeous pet urn. With a pet memorial necklace from our cremation jewelry collection, you and your children can keep your pets near your hearts.
- Create a photo or video journal – Gather your photos and videos together to make a compilation video. Post it online or in a family blog.