Pet bereavement in children too often has been trivialized or given inadequate attention. We are so involved with our own adult world of complexities and learned associations that we tend to lose some perspective on how and why children need to feel their loss of a pet. We too often presume that it is advisable to shelter them from this “grown-up” experience, which we find to be very upsetting. In nearly all examples, that is absolutely the wrong approach. If they are old enough to reason, then they sense very accurately when they are being left out of important discussions about things. The death of a child’s beloved pet may be of great importance in his or her young life. How this is handled now can remain with the child for the rest of his or her life.
HELPING THEM UNDERSTAND
It would be a great service to our children if we would step out of the restrictive mold of our culture’s traditional response to death. We have a strong obligation to them to begin their experience and knowledge of death in a constructive manner that is not as evasive and euphemistic as that which we grew up and lived with. Each child, depending on the individual level of development, should be allowed to experience his or her own natural feelings of bereavement without being overprotected. We hate to see them cry, but they need to process the loss and mourn also.
Crying at such a time can actually help them with dealing with their sense of bereavement. We need to understand that better. Children do not respond to death as adults do, unless they have been taught by example to behave that way. They always look to us as their role models, how to deal with this. But their normal reactions are much more natural, curious, and varied. And they are relatively so much simpler than ours. There are several important factors affecting their diverse responses to bereavement. However, children are very intuitive and are likely to sense when things about a pet’s death are being kept from them. Sometimes this even becomes a sore spot for anger and resentment when they are older. Their age and maturity must be carefully considered when trying to work things out with them. But that is the key word; we need to work that out
with them, not for them.
The following age categorizations are generalizations that are rather accurate. But each child is unique and may not fit exactly into this kind of grouping. There are always variables that the watchful parent should be aware of. It is advisable to read all the developmental aspects listed below to get a better general perspective. And keep in mind that this list has to be a bit abridged, and there may be so much more that you need to know or consider. But these are excellent general guidelines, and they can help you better understand how children react to the loss of a beloved pet.
2- TO 3-YEAR-OLDS
Two- to three-year-olds do not have the life experiences to give them an understanding of death. They should be told the pet has died and will not return but that that is okay. It is important that they be reassured that they did not do or say anything to cause the death. Children at this age may not understand what death really means, but they will sense and copy your emotions. Note that it is good to cry and show your own feelings of grief, but these must be controlled and perceived as a normal response to the loss of a loved one. Additional reassurance and maintaining routines will help the child. Children at this age will usually accept a new pet very easily.
4- TO 6-YEAR-OLDS
Children of this age group usually have some understanding of death but may not understand the permanence of it. They may even think the pet is asleep or continuing to eat, breathe, and play. They may also feel that past anger towards their pet or some perceived “bad behavior” was responsible for its death. Manifestations of grief may include bowel or bladder disturbances as well as a change in playing, eating, and sleeping habits. Allow the child to express feelings and concerns through frequent, brief discussions. Give extra reassurance. Drawing pictures and writing stories about their loss can be very helpful. Figure out some way to make the child
feel included when considering any funeral arrangements for the pet.
7- TO 9-YEAR-OLDS
Children in this age group now know that death is irreversible. They do not normally think this might happen to them, but they may be concerned about the death of their parents. They are very curious and may ask questions that appear morbid. These are natural and are best answered frankly and honestly. But you need to do that in ways that a child this age can readily grasp. Children in this grouping may manifest their grief in many ways, such as school problems, anti-social behavior, somatic or physical concerns, bed-wetting, aggression, and withdrawal or even clinging behavior. Drawing pictures of the pet can be helpful in eliciting what they are feeling but can’t express verbally. And as with younger children, it is important that they be reassured that they did not do or say anything that caused the death.
10- TO 11-YEAR-OLDS
Children in this age group are usually able to understand that death is natural, inevitable, and happens to all living things. They often react to death in a manner very similar to adults, using their parents’ attitude as a model. But keep in mind that they are still children, and they need kinder and gentler guidance. A pet’s death can trigger memories of previous losses of any kind, and this should always be open for discussion. And, as with younger children, they may be able to better express their feelings through drawing pictures.
This generalized age group reacts similarly to adults. However, the typical adolescent’s range of expression can range from apparent total lack of concern to hyperemotional. One day they want to be treated like an adult, the next day they need to be reassured like a young child. They should be allowed to grieve in their own way with no time frame imposed on them.
Peer approval is also very important. If friends are supportive, it is much easier for them to deal with a loss. Also, always keep in mind that an adolescent is always trying to find his or her own personal feelings and may often conflict with a parent on how to express emotions and grief at this time. They also need to be made to feel important in how the family is dealing with euthanasia or aftercare decisions. But teenagers can be volatile, and it is important to avoid antagonisms, especially at this time.
The loving parent needs to be able to put aside other family issues that may arise and could trigger anger or behavior problems.
Although young adults can hardly be called children, the loss of a pet in this age
group may be particularly hard. But they are now able to benefit from reading this
book. They may also have feelings of guilt for abandoning their pets when leaving
home for college, work, or even marriage. There may been a very close relationship
with that pet since early childhood. Among other pressures experienced upon the departure from home, a beloved pet’s death will add additional stress. Due to geo-
graphical distances, they are often unable to return to the family home to say good-
bye to the pet or to participate in family rituals associated with the loss. There usu-
ally is a lot of unmerited guilt mixed with their bereavement.
WHAT IS SAFE TO TELL CHILDREN?
Here we are very concerned with their ability to handle the major stress of facing death, probably for the first time. Our overly protective tendencies too often will prevent them from meeting this experience on their own terms. Because of our fearful preoccupations with death, we too easily overlook the simplicity of a child’s levels of awareness and needs, or responses to a pet’s demise.
It is a natural instinct to protect children from facing stressful things in general and death in particular. Parents try carefully and, at times, excessively to ease or prevent their children’s tears. But that is a natural way of expressing their grief, and it is part of their healing process. Too often, young people are not permitted to attend funerals, wakes, burials, or even memorial services. Nor are they allowed to visit anyone who may be dying. Children are shielded and not expected to be able to extend sympathy to others in bereavement. But how then can they learn this for themselves, for later in their lives when other loved ones inevitably die?
Because of unnatural protection and interference, they are permitted to have only minimal and indirect contact with death. Because of that, they will lack the firsthand experience that teaches a realistic understanding of death and bereavement and how to deal with it in a personalized, healthy way.
Parents cannot really conceal their feelings from children, because they are much too intuitive and perceptive. But because of our attempts to exclude them from stressful events in our lives, children can respond in ways we do not expect. Feeling left out, they may secretly feel shame and guilt at not being worthy of our trust.
They sense when they are not included in what should be a natural family sharing of things, bad or good. Around age five, this begins to matter a great deal. Of course, this age of development and readiness varies with each individual. The general subject of death is not unknown to children. Perhaps their first awareness is in the fairy tales they were brought up with.
Now they watch movies and television, and they hear reports from their schoolmates and friends. There is little that would really surprise them. In some ways, they are a great deal more sophisticated than we were at their age.
It might astonish most parents how much children can perceive. Depending on their age and awareness, they also sense the taboo surrounding death and discussion about it. And when they are excluded, they may feel guilty, feeling that somehow the death is their fault. Perhaps they feel that they have been “bad” again and don’t remember how or why, as is so often the case with children. But they are very pliant and can accept nearly anything if it is presented in ways they can comprehend and believe. Any questions they may ask about a pet’s death should be answered as honestly and simply as possible. Too often, parents become very awkward or over-protective when it comes to discussing death, so they oversimplify, use trite euphemisms, or even lie to the child. “The dog is visiting someone, way out in the country, but it will be back later.” “The dog is in the hospital, but it will be back soon.” “The pet went on a trip.” These are examples of some of the evasions and lies that will slap back in everyone’s face sooner or later.
Parents hope that the child will quickly forget and not challenge the idea. But that is not how it works out. Children can easily sense what may feel like a betrayal of their trust, which can permanently damage their image of a parent. When that happens, it is often is repressed, and it surfaces later in life as deep resentment and disappointment.
It is natural that parents will have even more trouble explaining death if they themselves have a problem with it. Children are very sensitive to this.
Fortunately, they are resilient and accepting of what they are told, and what is demonstrated by adult behavior. But they perceive only as far as their limited understanding permits at that time. Things that are complicated or troubling to adults are frequently glossed over with no problem at all by them. And that is because they perceive things according to their age and developmental abilities. They should never be lied to about things concerning the pet’s death. However, on very rare occasions, there may be justifiable exceptions to this—and it must be stressed that that is very uncommon. Lying to a child about anything is wrong, and that will almost always leave some lasting negative effect.
Try to explain to them what happened at a level that they can comprehend without undo distress. Expect tears but remember this is an important and necessary part of their own bereavement process. And always keep in mind they will pattern their responses to yours. It is heartening to know that they generally find resolution much more quickly and easily than their parents. They still have very few other thoughts that can complicate this for them.
For many possible reasons, children may not have yet adjusted to the prior death of a significant person in their lives. When this happens, there was no resolution.
The child is actually in a state of arrested mourning, and that may not have been realized by the parents. This is most likely the result of having been overprotected to a point where it is felt that any later reference to death can really be even more upsetting or frightening to the child. Very often, the household with a beloved pet presents an emotional time bomb to children with already repressed and unresolved loss.
Children frequently create a fantasy world with the pet, constructing a personalized environment of love and security. If the pet should die or go missing before the child can resolve any earlier problems, a new level of stress will result. This also may remain suppressed, or it may be suddenly expressed as secondary anger and grief, worsened by the first loss.
Sudden behavioral problems indicate there is something significant that is deeply disturbing a child. There is always some underlying cause or reason for this.
EXPLAINING A DEATH
How do you explain a pet’s death to children? A good start is to find out what they think it means. Use that level of perception as your basis to start sketching out your answers. And don’t try to explain fully. Incidentally, most people can’t do so anyway. You will be even more frustrated if you try to do that. And children will sense this. That might also diminish their future trust in your ability to help them with other matters.
Even if you work very hard at preparing a complicated or thorough explanation of the pet’s death, it easily could be beyond the comprehension level of the individual child’s developmental readiness. Prepare for that.
Streamline your ideas but not to the point of oversimplifying them or making them seem trivial to the child. It is very helpful to ask questions and customize what you say based on what you learn from the level of the answers you get. Keep in mind that ideas that could be upsetting to culture-conditioned adults are often unknown or glossed over by the youngster. To better understand how the child is responding, get some feedback at regular intervals. Ask him or her what is confusing or upsetting about the pet’s death.
Children love this very private and personal kind of close communication. And it certainly will help them deal with their bereavement. But again, work on that only at the child’s level, not yours. Otherwise, your efforts will be mostly in vain.
Younger Children Are Not So Interested in Adult Detail or Logic
After a long and complicated explanation, the child may express something like:
“Oh, all I wanted to know is if Fluffy is in heaven.” This demonstrates that explanations beyond a child’s level and ability to understand may be lost on him or her.
But don’t misread this and follow up by being too simplistic in your approach. Such “childish” treatment may actually be resented on a subconscious level of awareness. There are so many complicated reasons or explanations for things. But we must try to adjust our discussions about death to each individual’s perceptions. ‘
WHAT CHILDREN MIGHT ASK
Varying with age, some questions most frequently asked by children include “Where is my pet now?” “Why did she die?” “Is she happy now?” “Who takes care of her now?” “Will I ever see her again?” You must understand what the child is really driving at and needs to know. Too often, we answer in adult ways that do not satisfy the original question as the child meant it. Some of the following may help you better understand this.
Examples of bad and misleading answers to children include statements such as
- “Your pet was loved so much that God took it back to heaven.” The
child may wonder if God will take him or other dear members of the family
back as well.
- “The animal doctor made a mistake, and the pet died.” A child may
think that this may happen with people and their doctors, too.
- “The pet ran away.” This is tacitly understood by children to be untrue
or improbable at best. The child will sense being excluded from honest communication. Again, such an attempt at deception may easily lead to distortions, causing feelings that he or she is undeserving or guilty and cannot be trusted with the truth. It can also teach the child that you are not truthful. Also, if the pet actually did run away, what was it running away
- “The pet got sick and died.” The misperceived notion that dying is a result of getting sick may be very upsetting. Children and loved ones also
- “The pet went to heaven” or “The pet went to sleep forever” can create
frightening associations in a child’s mind concerning heaven or even
going to sleep.
These are only a few examples of common questions and replies that can have dangerous implications. There are so many others like these that you need to become sensitized to before they are inadvertently used and may create potential harm.
Euphemisms such as “The pet was put to sleep” have created frightening associations with sleep or surgical procedures, during which a person has to be anesthetized. Attempts at sanitized verbal expressions can easily be misunderstood by a child, who understands words more at their face value. At younger ages, minds do not work as well in verbal metaphors.
Some of the upsetting responses by children to the death of a pet have been “I was bad, so my pet was taken” and “If I am good, maybe he will come back to me.” This is related to the bargaining phase that adults sometimes experience during early bereavement. What happened to the pet may convince the child that the world is not a safe place. And any such fears of insecurity will surely be suppressed and triggered by future stressful experiences. They need to be addressed now. Naturally, family discord at this time will certainly hinder a child’s adjustment to bereavement. But at times, human nature can easily let that get temporarily out of control. Children will always absorb this and be affected by it.
As we all know, a pet’s disobedience sometimes causes its own accidental death. There are countless examples of this, and it could be particularly stressful to the child. Obedience to authority is always an important part of any training, for a child or a pet. And certainly, no youngster is perfect in obeying rules. At some time or other, all will experience some feelings of shame or guilt at having been disobedient. They may then secretly fear they could deservedly meet a similar fate as the now-deceased pet, since they also disobey. Such a rationalized response instills an unwarranted fear, and it may remain with them for a very long time. There may even be times when that gives rise to disruptive social behavior, since the child feels he or she is already guilty and going to die anyway. How sad that a child should be made to feel such things! Responsible and loving parents should be sensitive to that and correct any such misperceptions that may trouble or even harm the child.