Pet Loss and Children
“Grief is a reflection of a connection that we have lost”
As a child we had pets - dogs, rabbits, gerbils, pigeons, goldfish, and budgies, my brother and I loved them all. When they passed away, we were sad and cried our little hearts out. Our parents supported us the best they knew how to with tears, hugs, and chats shared. They also ‘protected’ us. We were only young children when our first dog passed away, our parents told us that he went to stay with friends, and that he is incredibly happy. In time we had a new rescue dog that got run over, but we were told that he had run away to go back to his previous home where he was born, as his family were missing him so very much. If I am honest, when we were incredibly young, I cannot remember being upset for too long as my parents rightly or wrongly hid their heartache from us, and always managed to put a smile on our little faces. It was only as we got older in our teenage years that we truly experienced what it was like to lose a pet. We lost our gorgeous Red Setter named Bisto and it was awful, she died of parvovirus. I remember my dad ringing my mum (she was at a friend’s house) to ask her to come home as he had some sad news. We were all heartbroken when they took her to the vets to be euthanised. My brother and I cried for what seemed like forever. Our home wasn’t a home without Bisto.
Pet loss seemed to get harder the older we became. Our home was never without pets, and this I honestly believe only enriched our lives more. Better to suffer and experience the heart ache of loss than never to have loved or been loved unconditionally. So, how can we help our children? Parents know their children best and no amount of research will ever be totally accurate on what we should say to our children when they lose their pet. Research will however, give us ideas on how to help them; we can take what we need to take considering our child’s personality and close bond with their pet.
Some children can cope better by understanding what really happened, and some would be far too upset to deal with the trauma if the truth was to be told to them. Do we tell them they died? Do we tell them how and why? Do we make up a story and shelter them? Do we twist the truth slightly? Do we let them see the deceased body? Do we let them come along to the vets and either stay in the waiting room or be present when the needle goes in? It is exceedingly difficult. There are so many questions… Often pet loss is their first experience of bereavement, and the grieving process can help children learn to cope with other losses throughout their lives. In my opinion, what we do need to do is to teach our children about the power of grief to heal. It has been said that about 40% of all psychological problems come from a life of accumulated grief. Grief that was never expressed or resolved.
How do we help a child to cope with the loss of a pet? Children tend to grieve for a shorter period than adults, but this does not mean the intensity of their grief is any less painful. They may ask repeated questions, so it is important to be patient with them. They pick up on our emotions - grieving as a family unit helps enormously. If they are of school age talk to their teacher, let them know about the death of their pet. Their teacher can be more understanding if our child needs some time out, to cry or talk about their pet. One thing that we should never say to our child is that their pet was put to sleep; children may become fearful that a loved one may also die whilst sleeping or they themselves will pass away in their sleep. We should give our child plenty of hugs, comfort, reassurance, and encourage them to talk freely about their pet (but do not push them). Be honest about death and grief, we do not have to go into details about how their pet died but be open and answer any questions they have truthfully to the best of our knowledge. The loss of a pet may be our child’s first experience of death—and our first opportunity to teach them about coping with the grief and pain that inevitably accompanies the joy of loving another living creature. Losing a pet can be a traumatic experience for any child and adult.
· Use clear, simple language
Children will need a clear explanation to help them make sense of what’s happened. Keep the information we give simple and truthful, and use words they can understand. Avoid using euphemisms like ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘lost, instead say ‘dead’ or ‘died’. This helps to stop children becoming confused.
· Talk about what ‘dying’ means
Explain to our child that all living things die – leaves, plants, trees and our pets. This is an important step in their eventual understanding of death. It also can be helpful to explain that when an animal dies it’s no longer hungry, thirsty, tired or cold and that it won’t feel any pain. This is a tricky subject, and it’s worth trying to make it a general topic of conversation before a death occurs.
· Label your feelings
Make sure our little one understands that they may feel sad, worried or even angry about what’s happened. Explain that it’s important to remember these are all normal emotions to experience when someone has died. Younger children will need our help to label how they’re feeling – so saying things like ‘I think you’re feeling sad because Fido died’ can be useful.
· Focus on happy times
It can take time to feel less sad about a pet that’s died, but focusing on the happiness we shared and doing activities that our child enjoys can help them to start feeling better. Reassure them that it will get easier to remember good times with their pet, and that feeling better is okay.
· Keep talking
By discussing the death of our pet as a family and listening to our child’s feelings, we are laying the foundations for how they’ll deal with loss throughout their lives. We could encourage little ones to express how they feel through talking, writing, drawing or even making a memory box filled with special things that remind them of their pet to help them to process the experience.
The above is just a snippet of how we can help our children grieve well.
The Author Kirstey Lee is a professional Pet Bereavement Support Counsellor and a Licentiate of the Society of Bereavement Practitioners, which acknowledges existing expertise, training, and achievements. Kirstey lives in Cardiff, sunny Wales in the UK with her partner Carl and their two dogs a Staffordshire Bull Terrier and a Jack Russell Terrier - Shilo and Monty. It’s the JRT (Monty) that wears the trousers; he is so cheeky and always makes her smile with all his antics. Shilo, on the other hand is quieter, more laid back and a sensitive soul, who likes his own space.
Kirstey’s counselling sessions can be carried out via Zoom, email, phone calls or texts. You can get in touch with her below: -
Or take a look at her new book -
Pet Bereavement Matters
(Understanding Pet Loss)
Can be purchased via Amazon kindle or paperback. Pre-order available soon