On loss and grief

Losing a pet is a traumatic event at any age, but it is especially difficult for children to understand. So much mystery lies beyond the realm of the living, so much uncertainty, so many questions that just cannot be answered confidently and with assurance. Where does that leave us when trying to console a grieving child at the loss of their beloved pet?

For a child, losing a pet can cause as much emotional stress as losing someone in their immediate family. That furry companion is the one who greets them when they return home from school each day, who comforts with them when they are sad, who plays with them when there is no one else to play with. Some children may class their pet as their best friend.

Depending on the age and maturity of the child, will determine their emotional response to the loss.

Children who are between the age of two and three are said to have very little understanding of death. They may believe that the pet has gone to sleep, and will wake up soon. It is important to tell the child that the pet has died and that it will not return.

Children between the ages of four, five and six have developed a sense conscience and may blame themselves for the death of their companion. They may also believe that the animal will return or that it is just sleeping. The child could ask multitude of questions surrounding the subject of death, which the parent should attempt to answer honestly.

Between the ages of seven, eight and nine death is a very real subject for them; they may internalize their feelings and have anxieties about the fragility of their own life and the life of those they love. It is important that the family reassure the child and discuss openly any anxieties that evolve from the child’s grief.

Children aged between ten and eleven have usually developed enough understanding through life experience to see that death is part of the natural process.

The child’s grief is displayed in a very similar way to the grieving adult. Which includes the five stages of grieving:

  1. Denial and isolation
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

As a parent or caregiver there are ways to comfort our child and make it a little easier for them:

  • Ask your child how they feel
  • Validate their feelings
  • Reassure them that they are not to blame
  • Answer their questions honestly
  • Tell their teacher of the loss
  • Read them books on losing a pet
  • Never tell them how they should feel
  • Share your own beliefs around death
  • Empathise and share your own feelings with your child
  • Give the child options for the pets burial

Finally, and most importantly, be patient. The emotional processing of this life event will take time and eventually it will become easier.

By Rachael Pilley