Helping Children Cope With Loss

The loss of a pet can be a significant experience in a child’s life at any age, often with long term impacts.  Studies have shown that children can have a stronger bond with a pet than with their human peers or even siblings.  Kids are highly likely to turn to their pets for support, even more than to their human peers.  And for many kids, the loss of a pet is their first experience with significant loss and grief.  But this experience is also an opportunity to provide children with tools and strategies for healthy expressions of grief that can stay with them for life.

Kids need our support and our honesty.

Every child is different in how they will process and experience grief.  One important factor is age – children of different age groups tend to experience loss in specific ways.  But children are all unique and may react in their own unique ways as well.  

  • Openly share feelings with children of all ages 
  • Mourn together to show that grief is normal
  • Give permission to think, feel and behave in ways that are meaningful to them
  • Communicate to the child that you understand his or her grief
  • Be honest, avoid lies or insincerity 

Babies 0 to 2 years old can feel when stress escalates but are not aware of the cause. They are best supported by physical closeness, time devoted to them, and maintaining routines. 

Children 2 to 4 years old understand that pet loss is a significant family event. They frequently use “magical thinking” when they can’t quite comprehend what has happened. Death is not viewed as permanent by children under five. They are more relaxed and curious about death than at any other age.

  • Provide these young children with more support than explanation 
  • Encourage them to express their feelings and thoughts through play
  • Avoid using phrases referring to death as sleeping. 
  • It is preferable that children under five not see the vet using a needle to euthanize the pet. This could cause a future fear of going to the doctor for shots. 

Children 5 to 8 years old may still view death as reversible so it’s important to listen for their magical thinking. They may feel responsible for the death through thoughts, actions or wishes. They express feelings through behavior. Their cognitive ability to associate cause and effect is developing; there is some understanding of what death involves and this may result in a fear of death. They may personify the supernatural – sometimes in monster form – and are often fascinated by physical facts. Denial, constant questions, and feelings of guilt are common reactions so reassurance and a sense of security are of utmost importance. 

Pre-adolescents and adolescents. Pre-adolescents are capable of periods of intense grief and can become preoccupied with a loss. Adolescents can be self-conscious of their strong emotional reactions, may hide their feelings and act them out in antisocial ways, and seek peer approval and acceptance. To help them cope with their emotions of sadness, anxiety, anger and guilt, parents may:

  • Facilitate conversations about their grief.  Encourage them to share their feelings and thoughts.  Ask them about their grief.
  • Do not minimize the loss and the emotions it is evoking.
  • Let them know that you care about what they have to say and acknowledge the depth of their grief.
  • Don’t tell them how to grieve, instead listen to how they are approaching their grief 
  • Let them know that it is natural to have strong feelings that include sometimes feeling happy too.
  • Encourage them to associate with peers who are supportive of their grief.
  • Empower them to take an active role in the decision making.  Ask them about memorialization options – “Where should we keep the ashes?” “What should we do with the clay paw print?”  “What kind of ceremony should we have?”

Should my child be present for the euthanasia appointment?

This is a very personal decision that only you and your family can make.  Generally for children over 4 years of age, we recommend asking the children what they want.

  • Use clear language to explain what will happen – “a doctor will come visit and will give Buddy some medicine to help him die, because his body is trying to die but it hurts.”
  • Let them know that they can change their mind at any time.  If the doctor comes and they decide they don’t want to stay, that is okay.  If they’re in the other room but are feeling left out, they can change their mind and come join in.
  • Let them know that any choice they make is okay.  This is a big decision and can be hard for children to make.   Encourage them to start with small decisions – do you want to be here to meet the doctor?  Then decide from there if they want to stay.

Some benefits for including children in the visit (or letting them make that choice):

  • Kids feel more prepared for what will happen because they’ve been included in the planning and decision making for the day, rather than just being told that it’s happening.
  • They have a chance to say goodbye in a way that is meaningful to them
  • They have a sense of control and inclusion – this can be important in coping with grief
  • They understand what they are hearing and seeing – often what they imagined is worse than what actually happened
  • They learn about death and grief – a good foundation for healthy expressions of grief

Before the Euthanasia Appointment

Engaging children before the euthanasia appointment can be important to help them prepare and understand what is happening, and can help with their grief afterward as well.

  • See our other handout titled “As Your Pet Approaches the End of Life” for many suggestions on ways to memorialize your pet’s last days or weeks.  Recognize and honor this time for what it is, in a way befitting the bond you share with your pet.

Some examples from this handout:

  • Host a “pre-morial” for friends and family to gather to say goodbyes, to share stories, to give tributes, etc.  This can help the entire family establish a strong feeling of support, and can give children a healthy platform to begin to embrace and express their grief.
  • Make a bucket list for your pet
  • Scrapbooking
  • Take photos together
  • Write letters, poetry, make art for your pet
  • Make shared decisions whenever possible.  The choice to euthanize should only be the parents’ decision, but include the children in other choices whenever possible:
    • What toys and blankets should we have near him?  Should we send some toys, flowers, letters, or art with him when the doctor takes his body?
    • Do we want music playing?
    • Should we give him some special treats? (if your pet is still eating well)

During the Euthanasia Appointment

Engage children during the appointment by asking questions and taking the time to answer their questions.

  • “What things are you wondering about?”
  • If a child asks a question that you don’t know how to answer, it’s okay to turn the question back around to them.   “What happens to Buddy after he dies / goes to heaven?”  It’s okay to say, “That’s a really good question and I wonder about that too sometimes.  What do you think?”
  • Let them be involved in creative ways – read a poem, choose the music, choose what toys to have with the pet.
  • It’s okay to talk about happy memories.  “Do you remember how Buddy got his name?”  “Do you remember the time he ate the Thanksgiving turkey?”

Of course, if they don’t want to talk that’s okay.  By asking these questions we’re letting them know that it’s a safe place to ask questions and that it’s okay to talk if they want to. 

After the euthanasia appointment:

Refer back to the beginning of this document for insights into children’s age-related responses to grief.  

Talk openly with children about your own grief.  This helps model healthy grieving for children, and lets them know that it is okay to open up about their feelings.  Talk about how you feel to set an example and to give them the words to talk about their own feelings.

Validate a child’s experience – it’s normal to feel this way.  Children may experience anger, resentment, disbelief, guilt, depression, nightmares, and difficulty sleeping.  This may affect their performance at school, relationships with friends and siblings, or other aspects of their lives.  It may be helpful to let teachers or other people close to your children know about the loss, and that the child may or may not want to talk about it with them.

Art therapy or other creative outlets can be helpful.

Some child therapists specialize in grief and pet loss.  Our staff can help you find additional resources for your family if you’re interested.