Our pets are a part of our family. Often times they are our babies before we have actual babies. They are often our children’s first friend, and the bond they form together is a strong and beautiful one. Sadly, a child’s first experience with loss often comes when the family pet dies. Talking to your children about the loss of their beloved friend can be difficult, especially when your child is experiencing death and grief for the first time. The age of the child is going to play a big role in how they perceive the loss, handle the grief and how best to talk to them about the death of a pet.
With two aging kitties in our household, age 14 and 13, and a little girl who grows increasingly attached to her kitty buddies every day, this is a topic I have worried about, researched and considered quite a bit. Last week one of our kitties became very ill and at one point it was looking like the end may be very near. Luckily, her condition has improved and it looks like she’ll be around for a little bit longer. As I was back and forth to the vet and busy administering the medication necessary to hopefully improve Miss Laura’s condition I couldn’t stop thinking about how I was going to talk to Maya about all of it. I tried to play over the conversations in my head many times. We talked to her about the fact that Laura was very sick but I didn’t mention the “D” word because I didn’t want to unnecessarily worry her until we knew for sure what was going on. I did, however, do a lot of research so I would be a little more prepared if/when the time comes.
How a child handles the loss of their pet friend is going to vary, just as how we adults handle loss varies. Some children may not appear to be affected and carry on much as usual, this is particularly true for children too young to really understand death. It is normal for children to cry, have changes in mood, appetite, and behavior after the loss of a pet. It is normal for children to ask a lot of questions and even sometimes wonder if something they did caused their pet to die. Children don’t generally understand the permanence of death until around age 7 or so and children younger than that may continue to ask when the pet is going to come back. The most important thing you can do for your child as they grieve for their pet friend is to be there for them, to cuddle with them, talk to them and listen to them. Talking about how they feel and letting them ask as many questions as they need to is very important.
One of the big worries for many parents is how best to explain death and what happens after a pet dies. How to talk to your child about this is going to depend on their age and your beliefs. The best thing you can do is tailor your conversations to your child’s age and understanding of death and to your beliefs as a family. Your child’s questions will be a big help in determining what they understand will help lead the conversation in a good direction for them.
I found several websites in my research last week that provide great information about how children display and deal with grief and how best to help them through their grief.
- The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement
- The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
- Family Corner.com