Helping children cope with losing a pet
The death of a treasured companion is something every pet parent knows they must prepare for and face as an inevitability. But for younger family members, dealing with this unfortunate reality can be especially traumatic.
How, then, does one help children cope with a family pet’s passing?
“While unpleasant to even contemplate, the reality is our dogs and cats are with us for anywhere between one and two decades at most. At some point they will pass,” notes Michelle Le Long, Chief Operating Officer of pet insurance provider pd.co.nz.
“For many children, there wasn’t ever a time when your dog or cat wasn’t part of the family, so it’s helpful to plan well in advance how to handle the situation when it arises.”
She adds that New Zealanders are fortunate in most pets making it to old age, although the risk of an accident or disease earlier in the life of any dog or cat can’t be ruled out.
“Pet insurance can assist families by allowing them to make medical care decisions easily, without finances entering the equation. Being able to pay for treatment at crucial times means it’s much easier to prolong a pet’s life – extending their relationship with their children.”
Five simple steps for guiding kids through grief
When the inevitable does happen, Le Long stresses, “there are strategies which can help them cope through the grieving process. Also bear in mind that the age of the child is a major factor in how they’ll respond to the news and move through the stages of mourning.”
Having a plan is the first place to start. This includes…
- Particularly with ageing pets, consider discussing the possibility of death several times with your children. Balance this out with reassurance that it isn’t expected anytime soon.
- When the moment arrives, gently break the news and explain honestly what’s happened.
- If you have beliefs in the afterlife or better places, consider softening the blow this way.
- Offer them something of the pet’s to keep of their own so they can see and touch it whenever they like, e.g. collar, favourite pillow, winter coat, etc.
- Put up photos of your pet around the home and encourage discussing these happy memories (keeping in mind you may need to remove if they encourage prolonged grief).
Younger children might cope better, particularly those under five years of age, as they have a limited understanding of the finality of death. Older children, particularly young teenagers, may well have a harder time of it, says Le Long.
“But whatever the age of your children, it’s important to stick to the truth rather than saying the pet ran away. And if your fur baby had to be euthanised, explain that the suffering has come to an end after everything else possible was done,” she adds.
Be cautious of phrasing and knock-on effect
While older children and adults like using euphemisms to cope with loss – such as ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘God has taken the pet’ – care is advised for younger children, who might take these figures of speech literally. “You don’t want your child becoming afraid of going to sleep or thinking God might take them or their parents away unexpectedly,” says Le Long.
On this, she advises being aware that children can extrapolate from the death of a pet and start pondering the possibility of death for you, their parent, or their grandparents. Once again, sticking to the truth is invaluable; after all, death is part of life for all of us. But soften carefully.
Giving children space to grieve and run through the many emotions accompanying a pet’s passing – anger, frustration, hopelessness, despair – is invaluable in helping them process it.
As with all things, time is the great healer. Treasured pets are part of the family and therefore shouldn’t be relegated to a memory hole. They should instead be celebrated fondly and often by reminiscing over the good times, of which there is certain to be a great many.
“Keep the memory of your pets alive by speaking about them regularly with your family. Grieving is natural, and in time it will give way to acceptance and nostalgia for the happy moments spent together,” Le Long concludes.
“Mourning a pet’s passing can also pave the way to helping children better process the passing of other loved ones as they grow older. Some say grieving expands one’s capacity to love and to accept and move through the changes life throws at us.”
Leandri Smith – The Mail Room
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