As anyone who has ever had a dearly loved pet understands, pets are more than just animals. Because of the joy and companionship that pets offer, they are really like members of the family, and losing a pet can be nearly as difficult for children as losing a grandparent or other relative. In many cases, the first time children must deal with death comes when their family pet dies. This is a delicate time for kids, and understanding what they are going through and being able to help them cope with pet loss will help parents and others assist kids in dealing with the death of a pet.
The Right Way for Kids to Grieve the Loss of a Pet
Child psychologists agree that not every child grieves the loss of a pet in the same way, and that is perfectly fine. Some children will get somewhat depressed, others will sob almost uncontrollably, and still others will seem not to be affected at all. There is no one right way to grieve the loss of a pet, and a lack of outward evidence of grief on the part of the child does not mean that the child is not experiencing sadness when a pet dies. Whether they’re cats, birds, fish, or dogs, all pets are seen as members of the family by their young owners, and a child is grieving even when their grief does not seem particularly evident.
Know What to Expect When a Pet Dies
Although it can be difficult to know exactly how a child will respond to the death of the family’s cats or other pets, there are certain things that parents and other adults will almost certainly have to confront when a child loses a pet. It is not unusual for kids to raise questions about what has happened to their pet when it dies, especially when they experience the death of an animal for the first time. Perhaps the most common question will be something like, “What happens to dogs when they die?” As those who have spent a good deal of time around children know, kids are very perceptive and can sense when something is off. Therefore, adults can be sure that kids will see right through the answers to their questions if they are offered half-heartedly or are less than truthful. Experts recommend that adults be honest with their kids about what they believe happens to their pets when they die. Answers in keeping with the child’s religious tradition will be more readily received and embraced than other answers that might be offered. Adults who are not particularly religious or who honestly do not have any belief about what happens to animals such as cats and dogs when they die should simply be as straightforward as possible. It’s alright to tell a child that you don’t have a definite answer to their questions: Adults cannot answer every question possible, and ultimately, kids do not really expect them to.
Dealing With Death at Different Ages
The age of the child when the pet dies must be taken into account when parents and other adults are helping kids to deal with the loss of a pet. The youngest children may not yet be able to understand that the death of their favorite animal is irreversible. When they ask when their pet is coming back, gently reminding them that the animal is not coming back but that the animal loved the child can be reassuring. Many child psychologists also recommend having young children write stories or draw pictures about the animal to help them process their feelings. When it comes to older children, the death of a pet often sparks opportunities for parents and other adults to talk about the deeper issues of life and death. Adults should also know that the child might recall painful memories of other losses and need to talk them through.
Remembering a Pet
Taking steps to memorialize one’s pets is a great help to kids who have to deal with the loss of their animal friends. Families may want to hold a funeral and burial for cats or dogs that have died, and such things are appropriate for the death of other animals as well. It may also be good to make a donation to or volunteer at a local animal shelter in honor of the dead animal. No matter what is done, consciously working to remember the animal will help children achieve a sense of closure when the animal dies.
When a Pet Dies (PDF)