By – Colleen Mihelich
Many factors can contribute to how a child will feel when their pet dies. The child’s age and maturity are important factors. As with older people, the relationship the child had with the pet, the circumstances of the pet’s death, and other events or losses the child has experienced will influence the grieving process. The ability of the parents and others to provide support will also play an important role in helping the child work through the grief. Some generalities on how children may respond differently to the loss of a pet, as related to age are discussed below:
Infants and Children up to two years old: Infants and very young children may not understand the death of a pet, but they are very aware of the tension and change in emotional state of those around them. Reassuring them by hugging and holding them, and keeping the household routine as normal as possible,will definitely help.
Toddlers and Pre-school Children: In general, children under 7 years of age do not understand that death is permanent. They will need help in understanding the pet will not wake up or come home. Do not try to hide a pet’s illness or death from a child; they are often the first to sense that something is wrong. Trying to isolate them from a pet’s death may cause them to feel abandonment or betrayal, and takes away their right to say good-bye. Help them to know it is okay to ask questions (they usually have many) and okay to be sad. Even children at the age of two can experience feelings of grief and sorrow. Underplaying the significance of a pet’s death may result in a child feeling that no one would care if they were to die.
School-age Children: Children between the ages of 7 and 12 understand the permanence of death. They may ask many questions about how and why the pet died. Children over 12 years of age (adolescents) may have a very difficult time recovering from grief and may not be open about how much emotional pain they are experiencing. Adolescents should not be put in the position of having to take on extra responsibilities, such as caring for siblings during this time of crisis.
Euthanasia: Euthanizing a pet can result in considerable confusion for a young child. In explaining euthanasia, simply explain that a painless injection of a powerful medication is given to the pet, which allows the pet to die and not suffer. In general, children under the age of eight are too young to be present when their pet is euthanized. If a child is going to be present at a euthanasia, it is best to have a pre-euthanasia session with the veterinarian to explain what will happen. At this point, it can be determined if it is better for the child not to be present during the euthanasia, but instead, to be invited into the room immediately afterwards. The words ‘put to sleep’ or ‘went away’ should not be used with young children, since it may cause them to feel even more confused. They may fear falling asleep themselves, because they think they may not wake up. Some children become terrified if they are told they are going to be ‘put to sleep’ before surgery. Or they may feel abandoned and that their pet did not love them and therefore ran away.
If financial considerations played a role in the decision to euthanize a pet, the child may believe her parents would not be able to take care of her if she became ill. In these situations, reassure the child that she will always be cared for. The child should also be told that the injection the pet received is not the same as what they receive at a doctor’s office.
Expressing feelings: Young children are less able to express their feelings in words and are more likely to ‘act out’ what they feel. They may show anger or aggression in various situations that do not seem connected to the animal’s death. They may start displaying regressive behavior such as bed-wetting and thumb-sucking. They may experience separation anxiety or complain about not feeling well. Activities such as those described above may help the child work through their feelings. Children of this age may think it was something they did or thought that caused their pet to die, and blame themselves. Even if they do not express it, it is often helpful to reassure the child that he or she was not responsible for the death of the pet.
The bottom line is that pets are part of our families – and the space they leave is palpable. Our kids are not immune to that space and its grief, or the change in routine and the loss of the love that the pet brought into the home. Creating the support that our kids (and we) need to grieve and say good-bye is vitally important. Letting them know, in your words and your actions, that your family remains intact, despite the loss, is the best remedy for everyone in your home.
About the Author: Colleen Mihelich runs an online pet memorials business. She is committed to pets and creatures great and small and is a sought after expert regarding pets and grief. For Colleen, it is natural to support people as they try to find their way from loss to healing. She says, “Yes, as humans we do grieve animals too. They’re very special creatures that bring so much love and laughter to our lives and to our families.”