Losing a pet suddenly through either a peaceful passing or due to a traumatic incident can be very distressing for the whole family.
However, for children, the loss can be especially heart-breaking as the joy of growing up with their beloved friend becomes a sadness that can be hard to reconcile, especially if it’s their first experience of death and bereavement.
How you deal with this and help them deal with the powerful emotions it brings on is especially important, and it can help them deal with not only the death of a pet but how to cope with loss throughout their life.
Offering support to them while they grieve can be difficult, so we’ve put together the following list of ideas to help you and other family members come to terms with this difficult experience.
Communicate the loss as soon as possible. It is important for your children to hear this news from you. It might be extremely difficult to discuss it with your child the loss of a family pet, but it’s vital they hear the news from someone they trust and can offer immediate support.
Choose a quiet and familiar area for the conversation with no distractions if possible. It is best to ensure you have time set aside as your child may want to ask questions. Some children may repeat the same questions and may need extra time.
Regardless of child age, they might not have a real understanding of death and so questions might be difficult to answer. Take time with them and let them come to terms with their loss in their own way.
It is always best to focus on the facts. Gentle honesty is best in these instances. It is important to answer their questions, but not to include any distressing details. You are there to provide information and support.
Try to keep your language simple and easy to understand. Using phrases like “he fell into a special sleep and is now in heaven” could make a child scared that they could go to heaven each time they go to sleep. It is better to say that their pet has died. Be honest with them and explain the concept of death in ways they will understand.
With sudden, unexpected death your child will obviously feel shocked, and may also experience fear and disbelief. It’s hard enough to cope with pet loss when due to illness, but if it is a shock, it can be especially traumatic. Supporting bereaved children at this time should take priority.
It is good as a family to openly discuss your feelings to your child. This may encourage them to share their feelings, but will also help them to know that it is OK to feel sad and to cry at this time.
Allow your child to express as much grief as they are experiencing and respond to these emotions with comfort and reassurance. Their reaction may be more intense to sudden unexpected death, so be prepared for that.
Your child may go through a rollercoaster of emotions, and this is a natural part of the grieving process. Follow their lead.
Sadly, it is impossible to shelter children from pet loss, however, as a family, everyone can come together to mourn, grieve and cope. You might be surprised at how well bereaved children and young people can deal with these issues.
Allowing children to create a memorial box, or to draw pictures can help them during the grieving process.
If you feel that you need more support in helping your family to reach out; support is out there. The Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Line is open for children as well as adults, and there are other counselling services out there too.
We spoke to Steve Guy, a counsellor who helps people come to terms with grief in their life, and asked him the best way to deal with the loss of a pet, especially when talking to children.
Should I talk to my children about their pet dying, and how can I have this conversation?
Yes, you should, for many children (and adults), animals are not just pets but part of the family and maybe even best friends. Sadly, owning a pet also has the side where they are lost through illness, old age or another issue.
No matter what it is, the loss can be heart-breaking for a child. Children are best supported with news about their pet dying, by preparing them and letting them know what to expect.
Just like adults it allows them time to deal with the pending loss and unnecessary feelings of distress which can occur later because the matter has been hidden away.
For children, the fact their pet is dying may be their first encounter with death and so it’s important that they are allowed to deal with it in an appropriate and supported way, and doing so can also prepare them for other losses in the future.
It can be really difficult to talk to a child about death and dying and so it’s useful to find a place they feel safe, and you won’t be disturbed so you can communicate on a one to one basis. Be honest with the young person but also gauge what material the child can deal with, this will depend on the individual child because of their age, maturity and previous experiences; and if the pet is dying, consider talking to them before the pet actually dies.
How can I help prepare my child for the death of a pet?
There are many ways to do this, but as long as the child is not too young, its best to be honest about what’s happening.
There are lots of good books and videos on YouTube which explain this but I tend to find using metaphors help the child understand better so comparing death and dying it to the growth and death of a flower in the garden or the changing seasons, for instance, helps but doing so that does not step away from talking about death and dying.
If a pet is dying though and you want to prepare a child for what is, and will take place, especially if their pet is to be euthanised you can introduce the following topics into the conversation: explain how their pet will never recover, that it is a kindness for their pet so that they don’t suffer anymore with the pain or discomfort, that their pet will not be scared anymore and will die in peace and that everything has been done by the vets and everyone else associated with them.
At some before the vet prepares to euthanise a pet, a child may wish to say goodbye to them. You might also offer some time for a child to say goodbye to their pet but again this will depend on the maturity, age and experiences of the child.
Should my children be present for the euthanasia of their pet?
This is something that will depend on your child’s age, maturity and experiences, it can for some be a time to say a final goodbye, and if this is the case its extremely useful to explain to them about the process, so that they are not scared or taken aback by what takes place when the vet puts the pet to sleep.
For some children, however, it may be that they will be affected by being involved in the process and this can cause more distress for the child in the future. The truth is that it depends on each individual child and the points raised above and in other sections about age, maturity and experience.
How can I help support my child after the death of a pet?
Like any loss, grief can follow and with there may be a change in your child emotionally, physically, behaviourally or psychologically. This is normal just as with any other grief and is a natural response to the sorrow being felt. The important this is not to dismiss the grief or the importance of the loss, and not to try and avoid grieving or make it go away too quickly.
Everyone reacts to grief differently and the process of dealing with it has a different time span which is as individual as the person concerned.
After the death of a pet, a child needs support to deal with the emotions that are being felt. It’s important to actively listen to what your child is saying and feeling. To be patient with them but not indulgent, it is after all process which needs to be worked through. You may need to contact their school in case of a change in character and the effect this might have those around your child and the perceptions people will make.
You can also make a memory box or scrapbook about their pet which helps process the grief itself, as well as write or draw about their pet. The most important thing is to engage with the grief.
What you shouldn’t do is just replace the pet as if it were an inanimate object as this will dismiss the importance of the child’s pet and the feelings they had for it and are facing now.
I’m worried about my child emotional wellbeing after their pet has passed away; who can I reach out to for support?
If your child is finding it difficult to deal with the loss of their pet and the best thing to do is seek professional help and someone who can support them with their emotional well-being, as well as help then move through the grieving process.
You can find a therapist through Dignipets to support your child, but if you look for a therapist elsewhere check that they have some experience of supporting young people and bereavement work, and preferably bereavement work regarding pets.
You might also approach your child’s school and ask if they can speak to the school counsellor if they have one.
Dignipets is a mobile veterinary practice that focuses on palliative and end of life care in the Midlands. Our vets are experienced and trained to make every home visit for your pet to be the best it can be so you can focus on loving your pet together with your child. We also provide online visits with our team to help you prepare.
Free for every pet owner in the Midlands.
Feel free to contact us on 0333 320 8731 for more information or email us on [email protected]