"The experience of loss for children -- whether it's a pet, a parent or a friend -- is the same," says Alana Sorem, a child and family therapist from Seattle. Since losing a pet is often a child's first encounter with death, appropriate response is critical. And parents must process their own emotions in tandem with the child's. "It's an opportunity to demonstrate intense feelings are manageable," Sorem says. "If handled properly, this can be a phenomenal teaching experience for a child."
Discussing the death of a pet is essential. Find a quiet place where you can talk without interruption. Be clear and honest when explaining what happened. Telling the child the animal "went to sleep" may make young children afraid to go to bed, fearing they will also die. Likewise, saying the pet "ran away" can foster the belief the pet may return, or cause the child to want to search for it. Even worse, children may feel betrayed when they learn the truth.
Sorem recommends being direct but kind, and using a tone of voice to convey sadness over the loss. Answer all questions truthfully in words children can understand, but avoid overloading younger kids with unnecessary details. Older kids can be provided with more information, such as explaining that the animal was euthanized, but be certain to convey that this was done out of love to end their suffering.
It's also important to allow children to grieve in their own way and at their own pace. Younger kids tend to handle death better since their understanding of it is not as complete. Pre-teens have a harder time because their concepts of finality are more refined. They may also have had the pet for a longer time period and therefore developed a deeper bond.
In general, rituals are the key to working through feelings and providing closure. A burial attended by family members for young children, and possibly also supportive friends for the 11-12 year olds, can help with healing. Have the child write a poem and bury it with the pet, use pictures to make a scrapbook or shrine, or take a trip to the animal's favorite park. "Grieving is two-fold: We need a place to process the pain; but also to celebrate the joy of the relationship. They are both part of the healing," Sorem says.
If a child witnessed the pet's death or caused it, the trauma of the experience intensifies. "What's really important is to provide solace and acknowledge that it was an awful experience," Sorem says. Children need reassurance that the death was not their fault, even if they unintentionally caused it. Explain that it was an accident and that people make mistakes.
Providing kids with choices for memorializing the pet is also vital, as is active involvement, which can release them from feelings of passivity or helplessness. Younger children will generally want to make something to celebrate the animal's life, but older kids may choose to do something on the pet's behalf, such as offering to walk a neighbor's dog or raising money for a shelter.
Signs to watch for: Grief can manifest itself psychologically, socially and physically. Common symptoms such as lethargy, excessive sleeping or obsession with the death should be monitored. Check in with the child continually, especially if he or she is not emotionally forthcoming.
An introverted child may not appear to be grieving, but it may be too painful for him or her to talk about. Creating a safe environment that involves an activity, such as writing or drawing quietly while having a conversation with an adult, can uncover repressed emotions. While advising that children should not be forced share their feelings, Sorem notes: "Whether they express it or not, it's safe to assume death will have an impact on any child."
Don't rush to replace the pet: Animals provide many valuable lessons while they're with us. They encourage us to be ourselves and offer unconditional love in response. But their value as teachers extends beyond their own lives. Make sure your family has both grieved and celebrated your animal's gifts to you before adopting another.
Diane Dash is a Seattle-based freelance writer specializing in companion animal issues. Her "kids" consist of six rescued felines.
Kids' Day at PAWS
PAWS Kids' Day is Saturday, May 6 from 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. at the Progressive Animal Welfare Society's Lynnwood headquarters, 15305 44th Ave. W. This once-a-year spring event is for kids ages 9-13 to get an inside look at PAWS, learn about the wild and companion animals PAWS cares for, and take part in a service project to help them. Parents, guardians or group leaders wanting more information can contact Julie Stonefelt at 425-742-4009, Ext. 258 or firstname.lastname@example.org. While Kid's Day participants will be able to visit dogs and cats during their activities, they will not have direct contact with any animals in PAWS' care during the event.
- Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children by Linda Goldman
- When a Pet Dies by Fred "Mr." Rogers
- I'll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
- Petmemories.com - users can create free online memorials for their pet
- Petloss.com - a collection of support options such as a weekly candle ceremony and chat room
- Deltasociety.org - articles on pet loss and bereavement, including counselor listings
- The Humane Society for Seattle & King County www.seattlehumane.org offers a weekly pet loss support group each Saturday morning.
- The Seattle Animal Shelter www.seattleanimalshelter.org also offers a weekly pet loss support group on Thursday evenings.
- The ASPCA offers a pet loss hotline at 1-800-946-4646 (enter pin 140-7211 and your own phone number for a call back).