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How to Help Your Child Deal With the Loss of a Pet

For kids, pets are more than just animals. They often see them as best friends, companions and, certainly, members of the family. And their loss can be truly upsetting. In fact, a study of children ages six to 13 who had lost a pet found that even years after the pet’s death, some children still described the loss as ‘the worst day of their lives’. But there are ways that we can help them understand, and cope with the loss in healthy ways.

Be Honest

Depending on their age, your child will have more or less questions about your pet’s death. School-age children may be open to larger conversations about love, loss and what happens after we die.

When you tell your child about the pet’s death, or when your child comes to you with questions, be honest about what happened. Answer the questions with as much information as it takes to be open and honest, but don’t go beyond what they need or are developmentally able to understand.

Being upfront let’s your child know that it’s OK to talk about death and painful feelings. This sets them up to process future losses in a healthy way.

Follow Your Child’s Lead

It’s important to follow your child’s lead when it comes to talking about their loss. If they’re asking for details, or more information, it’s a sign they want to talk. In fact, it’s really a sign that they’re looking to understand and feel your comfort.

Talk to them whenever they want. Let them know that you’re there to answer questions and reminisce whenever and however they need.

Validate Any Emotions

Your child is going to experience of range of emotions as they mourn. It’s your job to let them know that those emotions are OK, no matter what they are. Be prepared for grief to ebb and flow. Your child may be laughing and playing one minute, and crying the next. This is part of a normal grieving process.

However, if your child starts to have nightmares, trouble sleeping or increased anxiety, it may be time to seek professional help.

Have a Goodbye Ritual

For many people, and children as well, it’s important to have some kind of goodbye ritual for your pet. Rituals around death have been used throughout history to recognise someone’s life, and that holds true for our pets today.

Because these rituals aren’t defined by society, you can choose whatever feels good for you, your family and your child. You might have a memorial service, make a donation to a shelter in your pet’s name or create a photo album. It’s less important what you do, and more important that you simply do something. This ceremony will be a way for your child to process their loss and honour the role their pet had in the family.

Don’t Discount Play

Many children process the loss of a pet through play. The Bluey episode, ‘Copycat’ (which every Aussie parent likely knows!) is a great example of how children explore and manage loss through imagination.

In it, Bluey and Bingo find an injured bird. They put it in a box and take it to the vet where it ultimately dies. After it dies, Bluey and Bingo re-enact the day, and when Chilli (their mum) tries to rewrite history by having the bird live, Bluey insists that the bird die in their game as well. Bluey is using this play as a way of making sense and coping with her loss.

The late Vivian Gussin Paley, recipient of the MacArthur ‘genius’ grant, and author of dozens of books on children’s play lives, said: ‘The young child wants to play. He wants to play because intuitively he understands that through play he will understand more about who he is than in any other format’.

After the loss of a pet, your child might also pretend that one of their toys – a stuffed cat or dog – becomes ill and passes away. You can help them with this process by actively participating in this type of imaginary play.

When to Get Professional Help

If it has been a while since a pet has passed and/or your child is still struggling to come to terms with their death, it may be time to get professional help. Reach out to your GP, or contact our offices to book an appointment with one of our clinicians.

Author: Di O’Malley – Founder and Managing Director of Young Minds Health and Development Network, and Counselling Psychologist.

Please call us on (07) 3857 0074 to book an appointment with one of our clinicians; or send us an appointment request via this website and we’ll contact you as soon as possible to book a suitable time for you.