Death is a confusing concept for children, and the passing of a family pet is often a child’s first experience with loss and grief. Since many children have sibling-like relationships with their pets, the loss is significant and can be difficult for them to manage on their own. Parents, however, are grieving the loss, too, so many may struggle with helping their children understand and work through these new emotions.
Helping children cope with loss
Grief is a process, not an event, and it can look different in children than it does in adults. The stages of grieving can last days, weeks, or even months. Pets are often seen as family members, and it’s normal to be sad when a family member dies.
Don’t hide your sadness from your children. It will provide comfort for them to know you are grieving together as a family. Shedding a few tears together is healthy and therapeutic. Ask your children how they feel and help them reflect upon good memories and funny stories.
There are many ways you can help your children cope with the loss of a pet. Here are some ideas:
As a veterinarian and a parent, I have too often encountered grieving children after the loss of a pet. To help, I wrote Being Brave for Bailey, a book about Bailey, a pet who is old, sick, and dying and is brought to the vet to be euthanized because he is suffering.
Bibliotherapy: the use of reading materials for help in solving personal problems or for psychiatric therapy. —Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Being Brave for Bailey explains the concept of euthanasia through pictures and gentle terms, providing a foundation for discussion. After reading the book, children often have questions about Bailey and the decisions that are made by his family and veterinary caregivers. I encourage parents to use the book as a segue to discuss a family pet’s similar condition, and, in some cases, the tough decisions that may need to be made to ameliorate suffering and pain.
In my practice, I’ve also seen some great send-offs for pets, which help the families cope with their grief. Several of my clients have hosted “Celebration of Life” and “Bon Voyage” parties for their pets. They made their furry friends special steak dinners and gave close friends and family an opportunity to say goodbye and share happy memories and stories.
Other honoring ideas include naming a star after a pet; creating a shadow box with a collar, tags, photos, and possibly a clay paw print; writing a poem for or about the pet, or drawing or painting a picture.
Planting a tree or a flower bed in your pet’s honor provides a pleasant experience and a feeling of new beginning. Older children and adults may enjoy creating a website or social media page to memorialize their pets. Younger children may find comfort in making a bracelet or necklace that spells a pet’s name.
The heartache of losing a family pet can feel unbearable. I recommend using an honest, loving, and supportive approach with young children and remembering that every child will mourn differently. It won’t be easy, but when an open discussion is handled in tandem with love and support, it will build character and strengthen the family bond.
The deeper your loss is now, the greater your joy was with your pet. Time, and the ideas mentioned above, will help the whole family get through their emotions, leading to smiles and happy memories for all.
Corey Gut, DVM works for AAHA-accredited DePorre Veterinary Hospital, located in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Copies of Being Brave for Bailey are available to purchase or donate at beingbraveforbailey.com.