Should parents shelter a child from the death of a pet or should they involve them in[LW1] the process? This may present a dilemma for the family. Here are some practical considerations and guidelines that will help parents decide on how to approach the situation. Death is inevitable for all living creatures. We are guaranteed to encounter loss of a family member, friend or pet at some point in our lives, but the death of a family pet may be the first experience in mortality for a child. It is important to handle the event with the care. The age of the child at the time of the loss is key to the impact that loss has on the child. As a general rule, if your child is old enough to reason, he or she will in some way process the loss of pet and experience some emotion reaction to that. A younger child's reaction may not resemble an adult's reaction. Another general rule is that a parent's comfort and reassurance matters, regardless of the age of the child. Let's examine particular age groups.
Children less than 2 years of age don't understand death. They may be completely non-reactive to loss of a pet. They are focused on the here and now with regard to their needs. Logical thinking is not well developed in this age group. Slightly older children, 2-3 years of age, may demonstrate some emotional response such as crying, at the loss of a pet, but will readily return to their normal routine shortly afterwards. Parents should allow this to happen. Comfort the child in their temporary distress and return to their normal routine as soon as possible. Also children at this age do not need to witness the pet's passing.
A child 4-6 years of age is starting to process that concept of death, but not its finality. They may accept the fact that the pet is going away; but not grasp the fact that it is not coming back. Oftentimes parents are met with a number of questions, and should be willing to engage in conversations about what has happened. The best advice to a parent is to be honest and brief in your response. Lengthy discussion can be confusing to the child. Use gentle and compassionate words. Always allow the child to express their feelings. Storytelling, drawing pictures or doing other artwork related to the pet may be very helpful. Again, a parent's comfort and reassurance cannot be underestimated.
When a child reaches 7-9 years of age their logically thinking is developing more and the concept of "no return" in the dying process is setting in. Consequently the emotional response to the loss of a pet may be more dramatic and their grief may not be limited to crying, but may involve other expressions such as "acting out" in school, with piers or siblings. Encourage discussion in the family and involve the child in the discussion. The impact of a parent's comfort and reassurance is major in helping the child through the loss, as well as helping them form general opinions about death and loss.
As a child matures into the pre-teen years and beyond, their understanding of death and their response approaches and reaches that of adults. Older children may have actively participated in the care of their pet through daily walks, trips to the park, or feeding. Therefore they may have a deep emotional investment in that animal. The support of family and friends also grows in importance; as does the need for closure. Young adult lives are becoming more complex with school, social interactions, location moves for education, etc. These make the grieving process more difficult because sometimes a child may not be home to say good-bye to their beloved childhood pet. Fortunately, face timing and similar technologies can help the child visually witness the pet's passing an d/or give their farewell blessings.
There are many ways to help with closure from the loss of a pet. Memorializing the pet through art, video, ceremonies, candle lighting, journaling, storytelling are just a few of those ways. Choose whatever is feasible for family members to participate in, given the individual needs of the family members.
Here are a few literature resources to help with pet loss:
For all ages. The Loss of a Pet, Dr. Wallace Sife.
Ages 2-6. Boo I'll always Love You, Hans Wilhelm.
Ages 4-11. Dog Heaven, Cynthia Rylant.
Ages 12-18. Healing Your Grieving Heart for Teens: 100 Practical Ideas, Alan D. Wolfett, PhD.