Societal changes and advances in medicine over the past few years have meant that the bond between animals and humans has intensified. Within the family a pet can become a consistent and constant companion to children during uncertain years of growth and family changes. Pets can be a source of emotional and social support. Research tells us that 85% of pet owners see their animals as members of the family.
Pets can positively teach children about life and death and if well managed this should not be seen as something to fear as parents but something to embrace and support children with. Pets have been linked to the development of self-esteem and empathy in young children and have such positive effects on their health and mental well-being. Just as children are involved with the care of their animals they should also be involved with their end of life circumstances and decisions.
Children and adolescents will attach differing individual meaning to their pets. Secondary losses are inevitable, such as ‘the one who they told their worries to’ or their ‘play mate’. Loss can highlight other difficulties they might have going on in their lives that a pet might have comforted them with. Adolescents might be less willing to share their feelings but can sometimes be the most affected by loss. Other factors can complicate the grief process such as other losses or disruptions that happen within the family at a similar time.
Grief needs to be normalised and encouraged. Grief happens to us all because loss, change and transition are an inevitable part of life and grief is the natural, necessary and spontaneous response to the break of attachments. Grief helps children to adjust. Grief has no time limit and is not predictable. Normal emotional responses to loss can vary between Sadness, loneliness, numbness, denial, disbelief, bargaining, anger and guilt. Unlike adults, Children dip in and out of grief.
Children can express their grief differently to adults although they feel it just as deeply. It might be in their behaviour by ‘acting out’ or being angry/ irritable or in pictures rather than words due to their underdeveloped cognitions and language. Try to encourage your child to express and accept their feelings through words, pictures, poems or modelling and empathise with their pain. Express your own feelings of sadness, teaching them it’s alright. Try to talk to them about how their pet died without the distressing details and be as direct and honest as possible. Try to avoid euphemisms such as he ‘went to sleep’ as this can cause confusion. Use ‘dead’ and ‘death’ instead. Sometimes it’s necessary to seek professional help if your child is struggling with their loss.
Euthanasia is a very difficult decision that we make on behalf of our pets. Should my child be present? Is a very personal decision that only you can make as a parent. It is good for children to be well informed and prepared so that they can decide for themselves. They should be encouraged to ask us questions and express their concerns. If they decide not to stay, encourage them to say goodbye before or for them to see the body after euthanasia.
If you have time as a family to prepare for your pet’s death and discuss options together this can make the process more peaceful and inclusive. You can prepare as a parent by talking with your veterinary surgeon or a practice Nurse about the procedure for Euthanasia and timing. You can talk through with them about what you would like to do with your pet’s body, whether burial or cremation is best. If you decide on cremation you can scatter the ashes in a special place or keep them in a special box. If you decide for a burial, children can be encouraged to partake in a ceremony and plant flowers or paint their pet’s name. They can be encouraged to decorate a box to keep their pets ashes in or encouraged to bury or scatter them in their pet’s favourite place. You might want to encourage them to create a memorial by writing a letter to their pet or poem, making a scrap book or special memory box.
If you would like another family pet sometimes it’s good to allow some time for the family to grieve and to help children to understand that if you are getting a new pet they will not be a replacement.
If you have been affected by this article or have any further questions then do get in touch or try the following resources.
Catherine Sweet MBACP Counselling Fdsc
Books for children
Missing My Pet- By Alex Lambert (aged 6).
Goodbye Mousie-By Robie.H.Harris. Published by Simon R Schuster.
Goodbye Mog By J. Kerr. Published by Picture Lions.
The Sunshine Cat By Miriam Moss. Published by Orchard Books
Blue Cross telephone support line for Children and Adults
Open 8.30am -8.30pm daily 0800 096 6606
Child Bereavement UK The Child Bereavement UK website has a database that you can search for bereavement support organisations in your area