How can you help children address pet loss? David Meagher, a professor emeritus at The City University of New York, explains that pets genuinely become part of a family. The grief many feel for their pets is on par with grief they may feel for a close family member. Dr. Gloria Horsley of the Open to Hope Foundation discusses with Meagher how adults can help children address their grief and heal from it. This can be especially challenging when everyone in the family is experiencing acute grief from this traumatic loss. Many times, for a child, losing a pet is their first big experience with death—but many of their questions go unanswered.

Pet loss is a very serious loss, he explains. Adults may not have done a comprehensive job of preparing children for grief, explaining what death is, or know how to give a child the tools to handle their grief. In many cases, a pet is a child’s first and closest friend. They honor their pets, and sudden losses in particular can make life feel precarious for children. While adults usually know that death is a “big deal” for children when it involves a person, pet loss can be pushed onto the back burner.

Not “Just a Pet”

Adults might not let children “act out” in any way. It’s fairly common to hide the loss or replace a pet to preserve their innocence. That doesn’t help the child. If and when a child loses a pet, they should be allowed to talk about that loss with adults. Creating a ritual, such as a funeral, can help with loss recognition and allow for a formal place to express themselves. It helps to preserve their memories.

Losing someone you love, including a pet, is hard. However, adults can help with memorial services.

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Heidi Horsley

Dr. Heidi Horsley is an international grief expert, licensed psychologist, and social worker. She is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Open to Hope Foundation, one of the largest internet grief resources, with over 2 million yearly visitors. She hosts the award-winning Open to Hope cable television show and podcast. Dr. Heidi is an adjunct professor at Columbia University. She serves on the ​National Board of Directors for The Compassionate Friends, the largest peer to peer support organization in the world. She also serves on the National Advisory Board for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). TAPS has served over 50,000 military families who have suffered a loss. In addition, she serves on the National Advisory Board for the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation, and the Children's Brain Tumor Foundation. Dr. Heidi is on the VIP section of Marquis Who's Who in America, Madison Who's Who, and Who's Who of American Women. Dr. Heidi has co-authored eight books, including; Spouse Loss; Fresh Grief; Inspirational Stories for Handling the Holidays After Loss; Inspirational Stories of Healing After Loss; Real Men Do Cry; A Quarterbacks Inspiring Story of Tackling Depression & Surviving Suicide; Teen Grief Relief: Parenting with Understanding Support and Guidance; and Signs and Hope From Heaven. She has appeared on the ABC television show 20/20, has been interviewed by numerous media outlets, and has been a guest on hundreds of radio shows as well as quoted in dozens of media publications, including the Metro World News, Washington Post, Time Magazine, Newsday, Money Magazine, and New York Daily News. Dr. Heidi is also the author of numerous articles and academic book chapters. Dr. Heidi gives keynotes, presentations, and workshops throughout the country, and teaches continuing education workshops for health care professionals on support following trauma and tragedy. For 10 yrs., Dr. Heidi worked as a co-investigator for the FDNY-Columbia University Family Guidance Program; a study which looked at traumatic loss in families of firefighters killed in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. Through this 9/11 study, Dr. Heidi provided ongoing intervention and follow-up to firefighter widows and their children, and facilitated groups for bereaved siblings. In addition, Dr. Heidi supervised the school social work staff at Harlem Democracy Charter Schools in NYC for four years. Dr. Heidi's early career included work in a variety of clinical settings, including; Manhattan Psychiatric Center, California Pacific Medical Center Psychiatry Dept., University of San Francisco Mental Health Clinic, St. Lukes-Roosevelt Hospital Psychiatry Dept., and Hope Haven Residential Treatment Center in New Orleans. Her doctoral dissertation was on the sudden death of a sibling. Her academic credentials include a doctorate in Psychology (PsyD) from the University of San Francisco; a Masters degree in social work (LMSW) from Columbia University, and a Masters degree in mental health counseling (MS) from Loyola University, in New Orleans. Dr. Heidi splits her time between NYC and Tucson AZ.

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