Coping with Pet Loss
Hands down one of the most difficult experiences in my life was saying goodbye to my soul dog. This dog meant the absolute world to me; he was the reason I met my husband, introduced me to all of my friends since college and is the reason I am involved in the pet industry. While his meaning is understandable to me, I also fully understood that I had the choice when to give my final gift of good death – literally what euthanasia means in Greek.
Despite knowing all of this, coping with my pet’s pending death and then eventually his departure from my physical world was to this day – the most difficult process I have endured. To some that might sound silly but I can assure you I have had greater stressors in my life but none ravaged my entire emotional bank as much as letting go of something I loved so hard, and to put an end to a life that had literally built mine.
Now the thought of having to explain or help a child through that same journey can be daunting but as adults we must be there in the entirety of the process. Children do not have the understanding that we do about life and death, all they know is feelings and depending on their age; they will try to make sense of why something they loved so dearly, is no longer in their life. To them, their beloved best friend was taken from them – this is a great challenge for a young mind to understand. It brings up the “life is unfair” idea that no matter what age you are, that concept just doesn’t make anyone feel better.
Talk to Your Children about Pet Loss
Talking to your children and most importantly, allowing them to talk about what they are feeling or imagining is necessary. The concept of death to an adult is simplified, we completely understand the finality. By our adult age we have developed our own concept about what may or may not happen once a body takes its final breath. This is not the case for children, ranging from 2 years old through adolescence. The finality of death is not an easy concept to grasp when your life has been surrounded by so much life!
Your children should know that no matter what their feelings are, they are important. If they are confusion, sadness, anger, whatever those feelings are; they 100% matter. Please allow your child to express them and most importantly, talk to you about them.
Tell Your Children About Death
As adults, and particularly as parents, we always want to protect our children. The last thing we want for them is to see them suffer through anything that we know is painful. This protective sense can cause harm to your child when applied to death. If children are told that Fido was taken by God or he went to sleep this does not explain why they have not returned. God can became scary and evil since he took their pet away and going to bed could develop into a fear since their dog went to sleep and never returned.
You do not have to go into the details of your pets particular sickness but an explanation that whatever caused your pet’s death, it made their departure permanent. They didn’t go to visit a farm, they have left your world. This may seem harsh but a child – no matter the age – should not be left to question whether or not their beloved pet will return. This can cause children to place blame on themselves. They may associate some anger they had towards the pet (when Fido ate his crayons) with the reason why the pet left. Children have a right to know.
Certainly explain whatever your beliefs are in afterlife if you have them but the point to convey is that the pet has died and will not return. Most importantly, however that makes your child feel it is ok and they should always be able to come to you to discuss any sadness, anger, confusion; whatever the loss of the pet leaves in their minds.
Death is Age Appropriate
While many of us would like to protect a 2 yr old from a hard life lesson so early in life, you will not be offering any benefit to leaving your 2 yr old wondering when their favorite fluffy cat is returning. This is a wonderful age to explain death and to convey finality. At this age if children are not told that a pet will not return and that it has died, they can develop a sense that they did something to prevent their pet’s return. Children at this age are learning right and wrong behaviors; your pet’s death should not fall into the concept that they did something wrong so their pet was taken away. Children can create this thought so as parents it is our duty to explain that their pet’s departure has nothing to do with their actions.
By the time your child is 4-6 yrs old explaining the permanence of death can be challenging. Children’s imaginations are in full swing and while you may tell your children that Fluffy is gone for good and buried in the backyard, their fantastical minds might believe that Fluffy is rolling around with a ball of yarn 6 feet under! Some may even fear that death could be contagious since it will eventually happen to all of us and it is not unusual for a child to start bed wetting, or having problems sleeping or eating. This is why it is crucial to not only discuss with your children what has happened to their best friend but ask and listen to how that makes them feel. Being able to discuss their feelings, understand they are normal and why they have them is crucial.
For the 7-9 yr old, they seem to be able to grasp the concept of death being final and they do not tend to personalize it; meaning they don’t often blame themselves or worry about catching death. They do however commonly start to worry about death affecting others in their life like their parents. They are very likely to experience grief which often manifests as acting out. Constant communication is key with children at this age, ask them what they are thinking or feeling and discuss the answers with them.
10-12 yr old children are at a brain development stage where they conceptually grasp and handle death much like adults. They will grieve and go through the stages of grief but generally understand what has happened and cope as most adults do.
The adolescent child who’s brain is under another serious level of construction tends to understand the concept as an adult would but often due to emotional changes, find it very difficult to display emotional reactions and thus internalize the grief. They also are susceptible to denial. Children of this age may in fact be very grief stricken but will not outwardly display such emotions.
Death is Final
No one wants to have the conversation telling their child that their best friend, the wonderful sentient being that has been there for them, sometimes since birth – is gone for good. It never feels good to see someone you love in pain. The death of a pet can be a good way for the entire family to come together and grieve together. This can happen in many ways from celebrating the pets life with memorials or paw print ornaments to going to the shelter or breeder and finding another pet to share your life with as you did the one you lost.
While death is certainly final and closes a door on an animal for whom your family adored, it does not have to shut doors on your emotions or the emotions of your children. Let everyone in your family feel the loss of their pet, understand that each person, even the adults in the home may grieve differently but it is normal and should be accepted openly; discussing your feelings with each other often.
Before our pets get sick, or even during, it is a great idea for the family to understand the care their animals need. Taking the ProPetHero course doesn’t just teach us all how to recognize emergencies and act, or preventative care; Dr. Bobbi Conner discusses the real issues surrounding euthanasia and it is a fantastic learning experience for everyone in your family.