Children and Bereavement


Children and the Loss of a Family Pet:

How does a child deal with the death of a pet?  As a Parent, How can I help?

It is very surprising how, if you are open and honest with children, they understand and accept the finality of death, although they are naturally very upset for a few days they are able to grieve and come to terms with the loss and then bounce back, usually a lot quicker than we do as adults.

One good piece of advice which is invaluable at such a difficult time is to discuss the situation with the child honestly.  As a pet becomes older or ill, above all be honest with the child, explain that if a pet is very ill how they would not wish their pet to suffer, and that sometimes very hard decisions have to be made,allow them to discuss their feelings and come to terms with the fact that they will not always have their pet around, but remind them that their memories are very precious.

Young children who have never experienced death may at first find it difficult to accept the loss of a pet, sometimes it is helpful for them to say goodbye after the animal has died so that they can see that their pet is peaceful.  It is quite normal for children to go through a wide range of emotions following the death of their pet, friend and companion, this may range from sadness to anger before they accept their loss.

Anger and frustration may be directed at you the parent or other syblings, this can be painful and difficult to deal with, especially if you are also grieving the loss.  Try to answer their questions simply and honestly as this will help them come to terms with the death which is a very important part of the grieving process.  Most children however appear to go through the stages of grieving at a far greater speed than adults but dont think this is because they do not care.

Children can become deeply attached to a pet very quickly regardless of whether it is a stick insect, cat, rabbit, fish or dog, their pet is always there to tell their inner thoughts, hopes dreams and prayers.     Following the death of a pet the question of burial or cremation will need to be discussed, when talking to children do remember the practicalities of burying a pet in your garden, although you can allow the child to be involved in helping to dig the hole, make a grave marker and perhaps carry out a little farewell ceremony, depending upon how attached the child was to the pet.  Remember problems could develop later if you decide to move house or build over the grave.

The alternative to burial is of course cremation.  It is still possible to allow the child to take part in the procedure by taking the pet to the crematorium, saying goodbye in the chapel of rest, selecting an urn or casket in which to keep the ashes and then selecting a favourite spot to bury the ashes.  Sometimes the solution is to use a garden planter where the urn or casket can be buried, making a small garden on top for the child to tend.  Moving house etc., then does not pose a problem as the garden planter, complete with garden, can be moved with you.  Most children accept the idea of cremation quite readily, buy whatever you decide do not make assumptions about what your child wants, allow them to be involved in the decision making and give them timeto say goodbye in their own way, they may want to write a letter or put a photograph or toy with their pet.

A word of warning, it is not in your child’s best interest to substitute a new hamster or pet if one dies without your child knowing, do not assume you will not be found out even by the youngest of children, they can be very observant.  By replacing a pet without telling your child the truth will make them think that their feelings for their pet are not seen as important by you the parent and they could resent this.