Guest Author - Shirley McGillivray
The death of a family pet is often the first death experienced by a child.
Children develop very strong feelings for their pets and they are often almost regarded as a sibling or best friend.
When a pet dies, children grieve differently to adults, who will often be less attached and pragmatic. Children look to us to understand why something so important in their lives has gone and will often ask a lot of questions after the death of a pet. It is best to answer as honestly as possible, remembering the age and maturity of the child. Do not add any unasked for information as this can lead to further questions and possible confusion and most children are satisfied with the basic information.
Any answers you give will be guided by your own beliefs and views but if you donít know an answer, be honest and try to find out, perhaps investigating together. Giving random answers can lead to confusion and misinformation which will carry over as they get older.
Let them know it is okay to cry, that everyone feels sad when they lose someone important to them but that life has to continue perhaps suggesting that their pet would like to see them happy and playing again. Explain that it is alright to be happy and that sometimes they will feel sad but it is a good time to remember something they enjoyed doing with their pet.
Way to Help a Child to Remember Their Pets:
- Encourage him or her to draw pictures of their pet and talk about what is happening in the picture. Remember their thoughts and memories are important and should be acknowledged and honored. You could suggest they could put the pictures up in their rooms or on the fridge.
- Find some photos of the pet, with or without family and make a scrapbook to remember them. Find a nice book and stick the photos, some pictures the child has drawn and any other mementos you might have. Get your child to add some of their favourite memories if they are old enough, or you could help them or do it for them.
- Talk together about what will happen to the body. If it is to be buried in the garden, planting a small bush or flower garden is a nice way to remember their friend and gives them a place to go if and when they want to remember.
- If the animal is to be cremated and the child is old enough, let him or her be part of the decision making about what to do with the ashes. They may like to bury them in the garden with a living memorial such as a tree, or scatter them, perhaps in a place their pet loved to go, such as a park.
- It is important the child feels his or her thoughts and feelings are important. Giving one or two choices only helps avoid indecision and worry or the child coming up with an unworkable option.
- Remember your child will probably want to talk about their pet. This is perfectly normal, as is not wanting to talk about them at all. There are many excellent books for children of all ages about the death of a pet. Check out your library or bookstore and read some together.
Who Should We Tell?
When a child loses a pet, it is important to tell other care givers, particularly with younger children. This includes grandparents, teachers and family as well as close friends as they will then be more aware of any changes in behavior such as day dreaming, a change in sleeping and eating routines, aggressive behavior and any other significant changes.
Often children donít know how to express their grief and will need extra help and support. Sometimes a talk about pets and their death by a teacher for example will be enough but if the childís behavior is more extreme or over an extended time, it may be necessary to consider counseling.
How you react to the petís death, and in fact any kind of stress, will guide how your child reacts. Often this is dictated by your own history of loss and grief. If you have memories of losing a pet, particularly around the same age as your child, try to think back to what you found helpful or more importantly what left you feeling flat or excluded and try to avoid doing the same things as a parent.
The loss of a pet in a family can be a significant source of grief. Children will need support with the changes as well as understanding what is happening to their emotions, particularly if they have not experience grief in the past. It is important to show them it is okay to grieve and that is, sadly, a part of life.