Children and Pet Loss
The death of a pet is often a child’s first experience with grief and loss, but children perceive death differently at various ages. All children handle honesty better than deception. Learn ways to help your child cope with pet loss.
A Child’s First Experience with Grief and Loss
The death of a pet is often, but not always, a child’s first experience with grief and loss. Children need to know that it is OK to feel sad and cry. They also need to be encouraged to share their feelings so that worries and anxieties can be brought out into the open.The efforts you make to understand your child’s feelings will help your child better cope with this special loss. Be ready to listen when your child wants to talk.
Children Perceive Death Differently at Various Ages
Birth to Two Years
At birth to two years of age, babies can feel the emotions of their caregivers and sense the absence of a person or pet but cannot understand that the person or pet will not be returning. The feelings of loss will exist because of the feelings of those around them. Infants do not understand the reasons behind the unsettled feelings, but they can feel insecure because they pick up the sad emotions from the people around them.
Ages Three to Nine
Toddlers believe that death is a temporary separation and the pet is gone a while but will be back. From ages three to five, children view death as reversible, meaning they can play dead for a time but pop back to life. Not until about age six (ages five to nine) do children sense the permanence of death, but they are not yet convinced that it comes to all living things.
In this age group, pretend play may involve battles or illness and death. This type of play is a natural way for a child to face his or her fears. Because this is the magical thinking stage, children may imagine thoughts that are worse than the reality and fear that another pet or person will die.
Ages 10-12 and Teens
Children around the age of ten have the emotional and mental capacity to understand the finality of death. By ages 10-12, they understand that everyone eventually dies.
Teens understand the permanence of death much the same way as adults, but teens grieve differently. They may worry about appearing weak if they show their feelings or think that their own death is coming soon. Teens are often in conflict between the need for independence and the need for the caring support of an adult.
To cope, they may engage in high risk or impulsive behavior. In addition to mood swings, teens may change their peer group, isolate more, become aggressive, use alcohol or drugs, change eating patterns, or not perform as well in school.
The unknowns of death are scary. For children of any age, it is common for emotions to become more intense or sporadic, with the unpredictable behavior to go with it.
Honesty and Reassurance
All children handle honesty better than deception. Telling a child that the deceased pet is “asleep” may make the child afraid to go to sleep for fear that he, too, will die.
After losing a pet that they love, children may experience the same sorrow as adults but be unable to express it. Children need honesty from adults and reassurance that they are loved no matter how they feel.
Helping Your Child Grieve
Most kids like to draw. Children need the opportunity to express their feelings through creative outlets such as drawing, stories, or scrapbooks. They also need the chance to say goodbye and to know that they were in no way responsible for the death of the pet.
Adopting another animal soon after the death of a family pet sends a message to your child that losing something you love is of no great importance because you can always replace the one you have lost. If they see that a much-loved pet is easily replaced, they may worry that they are replaceable, too.
You can most help your grieving child by talking about how fortunate your family has been to have such a special pet. Nothing can take away the loving memories. They will be yours forever. When children have time to grieve the death of a pet, they learn that although losing something they love is painful, sorrow passes and joy becomes a part of their lives again.
NOTE: This article covers basics about helping children grieve the death of a pet. The Related Reading links offer more.
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