Children and Pet loss
Children and Grief
The death of a pet may be the first death a child has experienced and it is hard for a parent to see their child grieving. No one person grieves the same and children will not grieve like adults. Children’s grief will look different depending on the developmental stage of the child. Adults will need to adjust the conversation surrounding the death accordingly.
Developmental Stages and Grief
Infants Ages 0-2
Infants and very young children can sense sadness and will understand that something is different. Babies may sense stress within the family and may have behavioral changes such as an increase in fussiness or crying. Very young children, as they are trying to understand what is different, may want to be held more in order to seek safety and security.
Young children Ages 2-6
Young children this age are not able to understand the permanence of death. Children may ask repeatedly when their pet will come back or they may fear that their pet will wake up while buried. Children this age are curious and will ask questions. They may dwell on certain aspects of the death in order to try to understand it in their frame of reference. Young children may process the grief during their play and may act out the funeral or death during playtime. This is normal and parents should answer questions simply and interact as needed to assist in processing the child’s grief and accompanied questions. Children may exhibit changes in behavior such as regression in potty training, sucking their thumb and needing additional reassurance. Keep routines the same to maintain a feeling of safety and security as well as provide patience and consistent comfort. Reading an age appropriate book talking about pet death can be helpful.
School Age Children Ages 7-10
School age children are learning about the permanence of death. Children may have questions about where the body goes and what happens after death. Children this age may be fine one day and will have several questions the next day. School age children may act out their sadness through anger and behavior changes. Provide them with space and time. Don’t force them to grieve when they are not ready. Do model your grief and share that it is okay to grieve, it is okay to be angry and it is okay to be sad. Validate their feelings and name the emotions so children understand healthy emotional responses. Children will need reassurance that other loved ones are okay and that they are safe. Inform teachers and other adults in their life that a loved animal companion has died. Reading an age appropriate pet loss book can be helpful.
Pre-teens & teenagers
Teens understand the permanence of death and possibly have many years of memories with the pet. For teens the pet may have been the one “constant” who understood them, who loved them unconditionally and who the teen could be authentic and themselves around. The death may hit them hard but they may not want to show their feelings. They may show more irritability and anger to mask the feelings of sadness and fear. Encourage teens to speak with someone. If not a parent then a friend or other trusted adult. Teens may also respond more to journaling, writing or drawing their feelings or talking while immersed in a physical activity. Keep in contact with school, teachers, coaches, and spiritual leaders. Be open to talk when they are ready. Parents can model their own feelings of grief and sadness by stating that “I am so sad and miss (pet’s name)”. Show that it is okay to cry and take time to grieve. Talk about the pet and what great memories have been made. Teens may not open up with their own feelings but they are listening and watching.
College aged children
College students may feel guilty for not spending enough time with their pet before leaving for college. At this age a death also may mean saying goodbye to a “time” in their life. College students may feel that their childhood has officially ended. Let your student know that the pet had a great life with them and that their pet knew the student loved them. Check in with your college student frequently. While they may say that they are okay or provide minimal responses, checking in with your young adult can give them a sense of grounding and security as they are in the center of many life changes.