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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Dorn

Pet Loss: 5 Tips for Supporting Young Children from a Therapist Mom


If you've ever had a pet, you know losing a pet can be such a difficult experience and it can be especially challenging when children are involved. Pets become part of our family, and the loss can be just as profound as losing a human loved one.


Our family recently said goodbye to our sweet, loving, and loyal standard poodle, Charlie. Although it was, and continues to be, a painful experience, it was an opportunity to teach our children valuable lessons about life and death and help them learn about and process complex emotions.


Here are some things you can consider if you experience the loss of a pet with children and ways that we helped our young children - ages 4 and 6 (and ourselves, to be quite honest) - work through the loss of our beloved dog, Charlie:


 


1. We prepared:

When we noticed that Charlie was starting to have some health problems, we started talking to our children about his age and sickness. We gently, yet matter-of-factly shared that "Charlie is getting old and sick and he may die soon," so they could begin to conceptualize the idea that he would not live forever. Pets are often the first exposure children have to death and loss, making pet ownership a difficult, but important opportunity to help introduce children to the dying process. Talking about the end of your pet's life is a way to prime you child's brain for the idea that they will not live forever. This can help them to process the transition more easily.

*During this time, we also worked on being gentle, slow, and quiet around people or animals who are sick or aging.


2. We used concrete language:

When talking about death, we used straightforward terms like "death" and "die." We avoided euphemisms like "pass away" or "go to sleep" that might confuse children or make them feel like death is less permanent than it is. When our children asked what would happen to Charlie, we focused mostly on what would happen to his physical body. We explained that Charlie would no longer need his body because he was dead and that we would bury his body under the ground so his body could become part of the earth and provide nutrition, shelter, and soil for other living creatures and plants.


3. We read books:

Specifically, we read When Someone Dies: A children's mindful how-to guide on grief and loss with our children. My children were already familiar with this book, however, when we knew it was time to make an appointment, we revisited this book, specifically, the first half. (This book focuses more on the loss of a person but can easily be adapted for a pet.) The first section is a wonderful way to introduce what happens when someone dies and offers discussion questions that help create conversation about loss and saying goodbye. We were able to specifically talk about Charlie dying and discuss how we would say goodbye to him. We will read the second half of the book in the weeks to come if our children need additional help with coping skills or working through grief feelings.


4. We expressed our emotions:

It's important to let children see that it's okay to feel sadness and to talk about their feelings. We made sure to express our emotions in front of our children, but made sure to express extreme emotions in private to avoid overwhelming them. Kids can become anxious or concerned about grownups in their life who are sad or upset, so we reassured our children that when someone dies grownups can feel grief feelings too and this is okay, normal, and healthy. We used this time to talk about how grief feelings can come and go talked about how grief can feel overwhelming and that it's okay to feel sad and to cry.


*Children experience grief much differently than adults. You may notice your child jumps in and out of grief feelings, uses blunt language (ex. "My dog is dead" to friends or strangers) or doesn't seem to feel any emotions about the loss of your pet. This is all okay and normal. Our job as caregivers is to hold space for them to experience grief in any way it comes up for them.


5. We included our children in meaningful ways:

When Charlie was put to sleep, we made the choice to not take our children to the appointment (this was mostly because our children are young and would have had a difficult time sitting still and waiting for the procedure to take place), however, there are many other ways to include children depending on their age and interest in participating.

  • We were lucky enough to have a bit of extra time before his appointment. We went to the store and allowed our children to pick out a special treat or toy for Charlie to help him feel cared for and loved.

  • After the appointment, we brought Charlie home to bury him and we allowed our children to see him after he had died (we did this mostly because they asked to see him). Children are often naturally curious about death even though they may not fully comprehend what it means to die. We explained that Charlie would look like he was sleeping, but that he was not sleeping. This may not be appropriate for every child, however, it brought our children a lot of closure.

  • We included them in burial process and had them collect flowers to place at his grave and help us place dirt over his body.

  • We had a celebration of life party. After we buried Charlie, we had a special party for him to celebrate his life. This included a special dinner and a time where we shared our favorite memories of him and talked about any other feelings we were having. This was a time for us to honor Charlie and remember all the joy he brought to our lives.



 


Losing a pet can be a difficult experience for children and adults alike. However, we can use these experiences to help our children work through their grief and understand the natural cycle of life and death. If you're reading this due to a pet loss in your life, please know my thoughts are with you. I hope you will find some of these ideas helpful and know your pet will always hold a special place in your heart, and the memories you shared with them will last a lifetime.




Charlie, 2012-2023













Disclosure: I only share resources I highly recommend and would use myself. All opinions expressed here are my own. This post may contain affiliate links on which, at no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission.


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