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How to Help Children Grieve the Loss of a Beloved Pet: Tips for Parents

We recently lost our 8-year-old fur baby, a Rottweiler named Bronson. He had always been present with our kids, ages 6 and 8, and they loved him dearly. We lost another dog about 5 years prior, but even our oldest son has foggy memories of her presence.

Bronson had been healthy up until last year when we witnessed him have a seizure and the vet determined he had a tumor in his brain. There were no other seizures or scary symptoms for almost a year, up until a few months ago when we noticed some drastic changes in his health. A couple of weeks went by and he got worse to the point that he lost his bodily functions. From here, we had to make the hard decision to no longer let him suffer.

loss of a pet
Losing a pet is losing a family member. It is an opportunity to teach children to heal through the grieving process. Photo: WIX

In the weeks leading up to putting him to sleep, we talked to our kids about his illness and prepared them for understanding that we might be losing him soon. By encouraging them to show him love with hugs or treats and playing with him, we feel that it allowed them to connect with him in deep ways rather than taking his presence for granted (something we should all try to do with loved ones daily!). This was the beginning of the process of grieving in our minds, so we tried to explain the process of death while being supportive of their emotions.

When the time came, we took them out of school early, brought them home, and explained what needed to happen. We all went to the vet and had a peaceful ceremony outside in a private courtyard with incense and crystals. It was really difficult for all of us. Going home was even harder, but we took our time to continue to talk about what a good pet he was for us. The next day, along with a family member, we did some art therapy and painted intentionally based on the emotions that we were feeling and talked them through. A few days after that, we received his remains, clippings of his fur and paw print, and set up an altar with photos, the art we created, candles, his collar, ball, and some peanut butter (his favorite!). It was a beautiful reminder of him that again allowed us to talk about his spirit in our memory whenever sad feelings resurfaced. Essentially, they can be treated as any other ancestor that has passed on and become a part of an existing altar you may have in your home.

altar to memorialize a family pet
Creating an altar pays memoriam to the pet and can be used as a tool to talk through emotions and memories with children. Photo: Adobe

Teaching kids to cope with the loss of a pet is highly sensitive and can be hard for the entire family. Here are some steps and advice that can help that we are trying to incorporate into our process at home:

1. Be Honest and Clear

  • Use Simple Language: Explain the situation in age-appropriate terms. Avoid euphemisms (milder words or phrases used to blunt the effect of more direct or unpleasant words or phrases) that can confuse younger children.

  • Be Direct: Let them know that their pet has died and won’t be coming back. This helps avoid false hope and confusion.

2. Acknowledge Their Feelings

  • Validate Emotions: Let them know it’s okay to feel sad, angry, or confused. Every emotion is valid.

  • Encourage Expression: Allow them to talk about their feelings. Some kids may prefer drawing or writing about their emotions. Painting worked well for us.

3. Provide Comfort and Reassurance

  • Offer Physical Comfort: Hugs and physical closeness can be very reassuring.

  • Be Available: Spend extra time with them, offering comfort and support.

4. Create a Memorial or Ritual

  • Hold a Ceremony: A small funeral or a memorial can help provide closure.

  • Create Memories: Encourage them to make a scrapbook or a memory box with photos and mementos of the pet.

5. Teach About Life and Death

  • Discuss Life Cycles: Use this as an opportunity to talk about the natural cycle of life and death.

  • Answer Questions: Be prepared to answer questions they might have about death in a way they can understand.

6. Use Books and Resources

  • Read Together: There are many children’s books that deal with the loss of a pet, which can help them understand and cope with their feelings. See the links below.

  • Educational Materials: Use resources like videos or websites designed to help children deal with loss.

7. Monitor Behavior

  • Watch for Changes: Keep an eye out for any significant changes in their behavior or prolonged signs of distress.

  • Seek Professional Help: If needed, don’t hesitate to consult a child psychologist or counselor for additional support.

8. Model Healthy Coping

  • Express Your Own Emotions: Show them it’s okay to grieve by expressing your own feelings in a healthy way.

  • Healthy Outlets: Engage in activities together that help in coping, like taking walks, playing, or doing creative activities.

9. Consider Age-Appropriate Responses

  • Young Children (2-5 years): They might not understand the permanence of death. Repeated, gentle explanations are necessary.

  • School-Age Children (6-12 years): They can grasp the concept better and may have more complex questions. Be prepared for a range of emotional responses.

  • Teenagers: They understand death but may struggle with intense emotions or even guilt. Open, honest conversations are crucial.

10. Be Patient

  • Allow Time: Grieving is a process and can take time. Be patient as they work through their emotions.

  • Routine and Stability: Maintain normal routines to provide a sense of security and stability.

Helping a child cope with the loss of a pet is challenging, but with love, patience, and open communication, you can guide them through their grief and help them heal.

Here are some additional resources to guide you through the process, even beyond pets:

Dougy Center

National Alliance for Children's Grief

Grief Books for Kids, click here.

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