Losing a pet is awful. It really sucks across the board whether you’re an adult or a child. But what do you tell the kids? How do you help them through it when you are trying to cope yourself?
Let’s look at it from a child’s perspective...
The loss of a pet is often a child's first experience with death. And although we, as adults, have realistic expectations of an animal’s average lifespan, kids are caught off-guard by this kind of loss. Most of the time when my child clients draw pictures of their families, Fluffy is there too! They see pets as family members, and expect them to be around forever.
Of course the whole family will be coping with this loss. But depending on your age, we all cope differently. It’s important to give children the freedom to grieve in a way that makes sense to them, rather than expecting them to cope in the same way we do.
So what kind of reactions can you expect to see?
There will be a variety of expected reactions, like sadness and crying. You might also notice behaviors that don’t seem related to pet loss, such as disturbed sleep, fear of other loved ones dying unexpectedly, separation anxiety, and behavioral problems. If these issues were not present prior to the loss, you can assume they are your child’s way of expressing his/her feelings about their deceased pet.
Regardless of your child’s reaction, the prescription is pretty much the same (keep it simple, right?!)
Keep the lines of communication open.
Give your children opportunities to talk about their feelings. Don’t assume they will initiate the conversation, or that 1 conversation is enough. Ask questions and stay present so you can listen and provide support/validation. If you lost a pet as a child, use that story to inspire your child to open up about their own feelings. Resist the temptation to distract your child from sad feelings and simply respond with words of support: “I understand, I miss Fluffy too.” Giving kids permission to feel their feelings will arm them with confidence next time they experience a loss, making it easier.
Offer your child the opportunity to memorialize their pet. Tangible activities are helpful for kids because they can make abstract concepts concrete. For example, let your child choose a few pictures to print and frame for display in their bedroom or the house. Encourage them to make a collage of their favorite pictures. Write a goodbye letter or poem to Fluffy. Make a list of the family’s top 5 memories with Fluffy.
Try to be patient when you see negative behaviors or regressions such as acting out, sleep problems, or separation anxiety. Don’t overreact, these behaviors are normal and temporary. Go with the flow and it will likely resolve soon on its own!
Address fears, no matter how unrealistic they seem. If your child says he/she is afraid you will also die, respond with an answer that honors their feelings such as, “Most people pass away at a very old age and I’m planning to be here a long time” instead of, “That’s silly, Honey, don’t worry about that.”
Moving forward from the loss…
Try to avoid getting a “replacement” pet immediately following Fluffy’s death. Wait until negative reactions have subsided and your child resumes his/her normal daily emotional and behavioral patterns. If you choose to get a new pet in the future, your child will be ready to embrace their new family member without the heavy weight of grief still lingering from losing Fluffy!
Keep in mind that difficult experiences like pet loss during childhood are the building blocks for coping skills and confidence in the years that follow. #teachablemoments #yougotthis
Be happy on purpose,
Do you have a question for Talia or something you need advice on? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Talia Filippelli, LCSW, CHHC, CPT is a licensed psychotherapist, certified holistic health coach, certified personal trainer, and the Chief Happiness Officer at Starr Therapy in Hoboken. She has been featured on CBS News as a mental health expert and was voted a Top Kids Doc by NJ Family Magazine in 2014, 2015 and 2016!
For more information on Talia or Starr Therapy, visit her website: Starr Therapy, LLC