The death of a pet - helping your child to cope with grief and loss
Children who experience the death of a dog become exposed to bereavement and grief. Often, losing a loved pet is a child’s first experience of death and this helps them to understand the life cycle and coping with loss. Children can feel extremely close to a loved pet. In some instances dogs are truly seen as a best friend and the grief associated with a death can be as devastating as if a family member dies.
Parents can help children cope with the loss of a loved dog by explaining to them that all people and animals die, that it is a natural part of the life cycle and that it is OK to feel sad. Death has become a difficult topic in today’s society and sometimes children’s feelings are overlooked when the loss of a dog occurs. However, death touches everyone and it is important that children’s feelings are acknowledged. Grief is a very normal and natural response to death. It is an expression of love and a means of saying things like “I am sad that you are gone” and “I will miss you”.
Children cope better with death when parents talk to them about it; children can sense if something is being hidden from them and this tends to make them worry more. Similarly, children should be encouraged to talk about a lost pet and their feelings about it for as long as they need to after the death. All the emotions and feelings associated with grief should be allowed; denial, anger, guilt, hostility, sadness and depression are all normal. All children react differently to the death of a pet dog but the fact that a child does not cry or talk about the death does not mean that she is not mourning. Parents should be prepared to let children ask the difficult questions like “is our dog ever coming back”? or “did our dog die because I did something wrong”? Simple, truthful answers are best here. When it comes to death it is generally not helpful to tell your child something that she will have to “unlearn” at a later date. Suggestions that “death is like sleeping”, or that “God has chosen our dog to be an angel” are often not helpful. This is because children may develop concerns about going to sleep themselves, or experience feelings of resentment to the God that has taken their pet away when the child still wants it at home.
Parents also need to let their children cry. Crying is a normal emotion and suggestions, especially to male children, that they should be brave, only force children to suppress the way they are feeling and slow the normal grief process. As a parent, is it also OK for you to express your emotions and to cry in front of your children. Showing your emotions will help your children express theirs. You may wish to say something like “I am very sad that Fido has died and I will miss her a lot. When I am sad I cry and feel like I need a hug”.
It is up to you as a parent how to explain death to a child as it needs to be consistent with the religious and spiritual beliefs of your family. The details of what parents say is not critical, what is most important is that any explanations are simple, comforting and consistent. For instance, parents need to reassure their child that the dog had a happy life and is not experiencing any pain. It is also important that children understand that it is not their fault that their dog died. Explanations do not need to be detailed or complex. Simple and descriptive answers to the question “what does dead mean?” can include “she has stopped breathing and her body has stopped working. She can’t feel or see or eat or play anymore”. Younger children in particular, may not be able to take in the answers to their questions all at once. You may need to explain the same concepts over and over again. It is useful to keep repeating the same message in a consistent way and to use the same words for “dead” and “death” rather than using them interchangeably with terms like “expired” or “passed on”.
If a dog needs to be put down, it is best to explain to children that it is OK to end the life of a dog if it is suffering and that quality of life is more important than longevity of life. If a dog is put down at home, it is really up to parents to decide whether or not children should observe this process, based on their maturity. If a dog is to be put down at your vets, and not buried at home, it is important that children are given an opportunity to say goodbye. Incidentally, this applies even to older, adult children who have left home, especially if they still retain some relationship with the dog. All humans, including children, cope better with loss if they have the opportunity to pay last respects and say goodbye. In some instances, this may involve seeing the body and being a part of euthanasing the dog. In most cases, it can involve being a part of the burial ceremony.
Children of all ages can cope with being part of any ceremony to say goodbye to a lost pet (e.g. a burial in the backyard). Many children like to write a poem about their pet, draw a picture, keep a lock of hair, plant a tree, frame a special photograph, share their thoughts with other family members, light a candle or gather a few of the pets favourite toys for burial. All of these ceremonial activities aid the process of saying goodbye and help children to feel involved in celebrating the life of their pet and sharing their feelings of loss.
It is important to remember that children experience ups and downs when coping with loss. More so than adults, children revisit death and grief as they grow and move through different stages of development. It is common for children to appear to be coping well but then to go through another period of feeling tearful and emotional. This can be sparked off by recalling a particular memory of their pet, seeing a dog that reminds them of their dog, or observing other children playing with their own pets. It is important that parents do not tell children that it is time that they were over their dog, or that they need to move on. No time limits should be placed on the grief process; rather parents should respond by allowing children to continue to express their feelings. Similarly, parents should be guided by their children as to when to get a new pet. We do not advise that a new pet be introduced to the family immediately. Some families are tempted to do this as it offers a distraction and can ease grief in the short term. However, we all need to experience our grief in order to move forward. Avoiding grief is not possible and people who attempt to do this often need to face up to it later in life. We have spoken to a number of people who have replaced dogs very quickly after a death and many of them found it a difficult situation to cope with. A number of them also felt that it was harder to bond with the new dog. If you do ultimately decide to get a new pet, it is important for children to understand that the new dog will not be a replacement for the lost animal but that animals are all unique and special in their own way.
Having said all that, having a second dog can help soften the loss from a death. If you have only one aging dog, you may wish to consider getting another puppy. Keep in mind, however, you will need to do this before your existing dog gets too old to cope with having a new pup around.
Ruth Weston & Dr Catriona Ross
Excerpt from Kids & Dogs which you may purchase via https://www.gentlemodernschoolofdogtraining.com.au/Our-Books