Handling grief or loss is hard for all ages, but it is especially hard for children who may not be developmentally able to fully understand the concept of death. Unfortunately, nearly all children are forced to deal with a loss of some type during their young lives. Whether it is a close family member or a beloved family pet, dealing with the emotional and behavioral challenges of children following a loss can be a trying time for any family.
Grief in children, as well as in adults, often exhibits itself in many different ways. One thing to remember, especially when the grief is due to the loss of a pet, is that children may actually take longer to grieve the loss than adults. Identifying grief in children is sometimes difficult but following are a few ideas that might help parents dealing with the loss of a family pet. Behavior or emotional changes, for example, are common in children following the death of a family pet. These may include a period of acting out, depression, or a general gloominess surrounding their otherwise outgoing personality. The child may lose interest in usual activities, become withdrawn from family and friends, eat less than usual, experience nightmares, become afraid to be left alone, or become generally preoccupied with the concept of death.
To make matters worse, children of different ages and developmental levels also handle grief very differently. Some guidelines regarding loss at different age levels are as follows:
> 2- to 3-year-olds: A common theme in dealing with loss in all age groups is honesty. With this age group, as well as with others, remember to be honest regarding the pet's death and use simple, easy to understand explanations. Make sure the child knows that he or she didn't do anything to cause the death and is not responsible to the pet's death. With 2- to 3-year-olds, it helps to maintain a regular daily routine as much as possible to help the child move on with life following the death.
> 4- to 6-year-olds: With this age group, it is very important to clarify that the pet is not coming back. Children in this age range may feel the pet is asleep and will return. This is where a direct, clear explanation is important. Children of this age may also feel that they are responsible for the pet's death. Make sure to clarify that the child is not responsible in any way. Disturbances in bowel or bladder movements are not uncommon and eating and sleeping habits may be altered following the pet's death.
> 7- to 9-year-olds: This age group generally understands that death is final. They may exhibit school problems, aggressiveness, withdrawal or clinginess as a result of the pet's death. Again, remember to clarify to children of this age that they had nothing to do with the pet's death and are not responsible in any way.
> 10- to 11-year-olds: Children in this age group may react to the pet's death similarly to adults. They often look to their parents as a way to know how they should be reacting. Children may also be reminded of other past losses when a beloved pet dies. Be prepared to listen and be supportive following the pet's death.
> Adolescents: Adolescents will generally react in a way very similar to adults, as well. But as any parent of a teenager knows, emotionality in this age group is often extreme. It is not uncommon to see rapid mood swings and very intense emotional reactions following the loss of a pet. Parents should be supportive and model control when handling the emotional situation following the pet's loss.
So what are some beneficial things you, as a parent, can do to help your child grieve the loss in a healthy way? First, as mentioned above, be honest at all times with your child regarding the pet's death. The grieving process can't progress in a normal, healthy way if you are not honest and frank with your child when initially explaining the pet's death. Be clear that the pet is dead and will not be coming back. Don't say things like "Boots is asleep" or "Patches went away." This can be confusing for young children and actually inhibits a healthy grieving process. Just be honest when addressing the topic and tell the child in an age-appropriate way, such as "Fido is dead and will not be back. At least now he is not hurting anymore and we will always be able to remember him and the good times we had together." Parents should also remember to allow the child to grieve the loss fully and not try to minimize the death of a pet. Parents need to acknowledge the child's feelings and allow him or her to express the hurt and not feel judged by mom or dad in the process.
Helping the child find closure following the death is also an important step. To do this, it might help to have a burial, memorial, or another ceremony of some type that allows the family to mourn the loss of the beloved pet together. If the family chooses to bury the pet, allow the child to participate and share stories or other happy memories during the ceremony. Another option is to plant a tree or bush in honor of the pet. Children can also be encouraged to draw pictures of their deceased pet or make a scrapbook to document favorite memories. If the child draws a picture, encourage him or her to share what the picture is about and what he or she feels regarding the memory of the pet being depicted in the picture.
Dealing with the loss of a friend, family member, or even a beloved family pet can be a very emotional time for children and parents alike. Parents can help make this adjustment easier on their child by following the suggestions in this article. Above all, remember to model a healthy expression of feelings for your child. Children look to their parents for guidance and need to see mom or dad express grief in a healthy, open way just as with any other emotion. By sticking together as a family as you cope with the loss of a beloved family pet, an unpleasant experience can actually help contribute to a more bonded, healthier family.
Shannon Anderson is a licensed professional counselor and a national certified counselor and owner and clinical director of Tender Hearts Child Therapy Center in Cape Girardeau. He and several therapists at the center specialize in treating child and adolescent mental health issues in Southeast Missouri and work with parents using family therapy to develop parenting/discipline skills to deal with misbehavior and defiance.