The experience of pet loss, for children and adults alike, rarely gets the attention it deserves. There are no socially sanctioned rituals where humans can mourn their pet's death, and often other people expect and even demand their rapid recovery from grief. You are not alone if the loss of your pet is difficult to deal with or even overwhelming. Pet bereavement is finally emerging as a socially legitimate emotion. This portion of our website is devoted to pet loss support for you and your family.
Grief Management in Children
Children grieve just as deeply as adults, but express their grief differently depending on their level of cognitive development. Children respond to loss based on the knowledge and skills that are available to them at the time of the loss. In general, children who have a broad knowledge base about life and death, varied coping skills and strong emotional support from family and friends cope better with death and grieve in more age-appropriate ways.
Many children are actively involved in their pets’ daily care. It is important to give them the option of also being involved in the circumstances surrounding their pets’ death. When a pet dies, adults instinctively want to protect a child as much as possible. By protecting them from experiences with death, however, adults deny them the opportunity to learn about feelings of loss. When children are shielded from adults’ expressions of grief, they are denied the role models necessary for them, to learn normal, healthy coping behaviors. Growing up with inaccurate ideas about handling loss and grief affects children for the rest of their lives. Death of a family pet is an opportunity to teach children how to deal with grief and helps to prepare them to deal with other losses in life.
With adequate preparation, children who are old enough to think and speak for themselves are able to choose whether or not to be present at euthanasia. They can also decide how to say goodbye to their pets, how to honor their pets’ memories, and whether or not to view their pets’ bodies.
The key to exposing children to any of these potentially frightening experiences is preparation. For example, if children want to be present at euthanasia, they need to be clearly told what will happen while they are in the room, what they will see, how their pets will look, feel and behave, and what is appropriate behavior after the pet is dead. Overall, children need to be given permission to think, feel and behave in ways that are meaningful for them.
All family members have unique responses to the deaths of family pets. Therefore, both parents and children should be offered opportunities to be alone with pets before and after death. This allows each person to say a private goodbye. Whether or not family members take advantage of this opportunity to say goodbye, most individuals appreciate the offer.
During pet loss, it is important for adults to avoid using euphemisms like “put to sleep” and “went away”. Since children are “put to sleep” every night, use of these words may cause them to fear that they too will die during sleep. Children may also have negative responses to explanations like “Pepper got sick and died”. The phrase might mislead them to believe that all sicknesses end in death.
Children respond well to straightforward explanations and concrete words. Words and phrases like “died”, “dead”, and “helped to die” may seem harsh, but they help children clearly understand and accept the reality of the pet’s death. Veterinarians and parents should remember that what is said is not as important as how it is said. After the pet’s death, adults can reassure children by hugging or holding them, encouraging them to cry (and crying with them) and by allowing them unhurried time to ask questions, When children cry, they usually appreciate sincere attempts to comfort them. Do not assume crying children want to be alone or stop crying. Crying can be helpful when it can be done without inhibitions or judgments getting in the way.
Anxious feelings about death and grief are pervasive in our society, and the best way to manage them is by creating opportunities for frank, open comments or discussions about loss. Children can be asked to share memories and stories about the pet and may want to hear other people talk about the pet. Children want to know that when someone important dies, they are remembered. Sincere conversations about death provide relief for children, especially when they are not pressured, but are offered an opportunity to talk.
Finally, adults must be honest with children about the pet’s illness or injury, treatment and death. Some parents are simply not prepared to discuss loss, death and grief with their children. They believe they can spare children the pain by protecting them from painful experiences. However, children who are shielded from one kind of pain must eventually deal with another.
One of the most common ways that adults attempt to soothe a grieving child, is to adopt a new pet immediately. Occasionally this works. If a pet’s death has been anticipated and the family has talked about getting a new animal, children may be able to bond quickly to a new companion at the same time that they grieve for the old one. If they have not been prepared for the arrival of a new pet, children may resent the intrusion. On the other hand, the eventual adoption of new pets should be encouraged. In most cases, children will ask for a new pet when they are ready for one
Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement
Argus Institute (CSU)
Lap of Love - Quality of Life
Recommended Books on Pet Loss (For Children)
Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant
Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant
I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
A Special Place for Charlee, A Child’s Companion Through Pet Loss by Debbie Morehead
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst
About Dying: An Open Family Book for Parents and Children Together by S.B. Stein
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Recommended Books on Pet Loss (For Adults)
Coping With Loss of a Pet: A Gentle Guide for All Who Love a Pet by Christina M. Lemieux, PhD (Wallace Clark, 1988)
A Final Act of Caring: Ending the Life of an Animal Friend by Mary and Herb Montgomery
Goodbye My Friend: Grieving the Loss of a Pet by Mary and Herb Montgomery
The Human Animal Bond and Grief by Laurel Lagoni, MS, Carolyn Butler, MS, Suzanne Hettes, PhD
When Your Pet Dies: How to Cope With Your Feelings by Jamie Quakenbush, MSW
Cold Noses at the Pearly Gates by G. Kurz
We have clients ask if they should euthanize their pet. Often times we don’t have this answer which may be difficult for people to hear. This is a very personal choice and only you and your family can make the decision. You live and watch your beloved pet on a daily basis and can detect changes in their quality of life. You must analyze what you and your pet enjoy doing together and ask yourself if these rituals are still occurring. We will help guide the decision and will express if it would be the most humane choice when an illness or condition is critical.
Sometimes we get the question if the pet is in any pain. If you are unsure please feel free to give us a call and we can go over signs cats and dogs exhibit when they are painful. There are times that the answer is a clear, but other times you will need to monitor your pet for subtle signs of pain. We can help provide medical care to help your pet as they age, however you and your family will need to ask if the bad days out weigh the good days. The decision is heartbreaking regardless of how the choice is made. We will be there in your time of need.