Helping a Child Cope

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For many children in the United States, their first experience with death is through a pet. Helping children through this experience can be incredibly confusing and difficult for the adults in their lives. First, children’s bond with their pets is strong, and losing their “best friend” and a constant in their lives can affect them profoundly. In addition, children sometimes react very differently to death than adults do.

Despite these challenges, children must be given opportunities to resolve their grief. Doing so allows their emotional health to develop appropriately. In order to most effectively support a child through this process, understand that children will respond according to their cognitive development.

If you are concerned about a child’s grief turning into depression, read this fact sheet from the Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry.(PDF)

Suggestions to Help You Help a Child

Be aware. When thinking about how to talk with a child about the loss of a pet, it is important to consider the child’s age, maturity, life experiences, and emotional and cognitive development. All will impact your child’s understanding of terminal illness, death and other permanent losses.

Be honest. Honesty is always the best policy when talking to a child about the loss of a pet, even though it may be difficult. Lying to a child to spare his or her feelings will likely cause further harm. For example, telling a child that Scruffy “moved to a nice farm” may be problematic for two reasons: 1) This still represents a significant loss, and one that your child will likely mourn just as much as the true story, and 2) If your child discovers that you lied, he is likely to feel hurt, confused, angry or betrayed, and he may not trust you in future situations.

Also, be prepared to respond to difficult questions about topics, such as the euthanasia process, where the body is or how the body became ashes. Your response should be based on the child’s emotional make-up and maturity.

Be clear. Being clear does not mean being graphic, so avoid detail -- especially in traumatic situations. However, children need to understand that death is permanent, that life ends for all living beings and that their pet will not be returning home. Avoid phrases such as “put to sleep,” “lost” or other phrases that may be confusing or misleading to children, as they are often prone to literal interpretation.

Be open. Experiencing your own grieving process is not only important to your own health; it is also good to model to children that showing emotion is natural and healthy. It may help to communicate that they are not alone in their grief. Be open to talking with the child about her feelings, as well as your own, being careful not to create an environment in which the child feels she must set aside her own feelings to support your grief. Encourage the expression of her feelings and acknowledge the pain that you share. Above all, this is a time to heal together.

Be patient. While moving forward is necessary, it is also important to keep in mind that every child grieves differently and in his own time. Validate the child’s feelings, express that you are there if he needs support, and do not rush the child back to happiness before he is ready. Avoid the temptation to immediately replace the pet or “trick” the child with a lookalike. Without first resolving the initial grief, problems of acceptance and false expectations of a new pet may occur. When the entire family is ready, a new animal companion can be a wonderful and healing experience.

Be attentive. If a child’s sadness appears to be excessively lingering and/or severe, or if you see unusual changes in behavior, your child might be experiencing depression. (PDF) If you are concerned, consider seeking help from a professional.

Be connected. Depending on the child’s reaction to the pet loss, you may need to connect to others outside the household. Extended family members, teachers, coaches, friends, youth group leaders and others should know if the child is struggling so that they may provide an appropriate level of support. Remember, those who don’t have pets or who don’t recognize the depth of the bond may not realize the impact of the loss. You may need to convey the significance of the pet’s role in the child’s family.

Be proactive. Honoring a pet’s life and what he or she meant will be different for every family, and perhaps for every member. Find special ways to share memories of the pet. American Humane Association has created a variety of activities and a list of books to read together.

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