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Children and grief- different ages

Grief is a real and complex emotion that children experience at times of loss and change. The death of a pet is a significant experience for most children.

This guide may provide some general understandings and ways of responding to and supporting your child as they live with the loss of their much loved pet. It is a general guide only and please, consult relevant health professionals and additional resources to make decisions appropriate to your child and family situation.

Under 2

All children are sponges at this age- they feel everything. Their language and cognitive skills are yet to develop to give them a sense of ‘their own’ identity separate to their primary caregivers and/or siblings.  They do not ‘understand’ death and loss rather they perceive the sadness and stress of those around them. They will cry if their primary care givers and/or other siblings are upset.  Hold them close and reassure them, have your feelings and let them come out the other end. Giving young pre-verbal children the whole emotional experience is important. If they are part of the tears; allow them to be part of the release after the tears and the closeness and intimacy that follow. Even the laughter, the memories and any ceremony you may hold will give them the whole emotional experience that will result in a renewed sense of security.

2 to 5

Children of this age group are still developing their relationship to past and future time. They mostly live in a perpetual present and so do not understand the permanence of death. Their pet is here and then not and for them, even if there has been sadness, a trip to the vet and a ceremony, it is entirely likely that their pet can reappear when they want it to.

They are often curious about death, asking many questions and if their pet was buried, they may want to dig up their pet expecting it to be alive or as they last remember it. Be patient with them and their apparent lack of understanding of the permanence of death. Gently reinforce that their pet has died, that death means their body is no longer alive and they will not be here as part of our family anymore in a way you can play with and cuddle them.

Kids pick up on sadness or stress around them and this will affect their emotional experience. They may need reassurance, plenty of hugs and could exhibit behaviours related to their character – tantrums, self-contained, distant, start sucking thumbs of picking up previously discarded security blankets or objects. These behaviours support them as they navigate unfamiliar and new emotional territory when they perceive their primary support unit is under stress.

Be patient and explain as best as you can what is occurring and reassure them that despite the sadness and tears, this is a normal part of life and we are all okay within it.

5 to 9

With increased literacy, cognitive development and socialisation, children begin to perceive the permanence of death. At these ages, many children think that they are responsible for most of what happens to them. They are developing their sense of self in relation to ‘other’ and the world and so everything that occurs is filtered through this emerging sense of self.They therefore imagine that what they think and feel shapes what happens. They may feel responsible for their pets’ death- even if there is no direct correlation. They may feel they have to fix it, understand or make bargains with death to have the outcome they want. Children need to be reassured that they did not cause or were responsible for the pets death and that they can not bring them back, no mater how much they love them or think they should be able to. Children in this age group are generally well supported by being able to express their feelings in words as well as pictures.  Reading them books  will help them come to an understanding of death and how to live with the love they have for their pet.

Children often become intensely curious about death and what happens to the body. They may ask for details that you may find uncomfortable to explain. These are questions you are best to answer in a straightforward, gentle and careful manner. Some children closer to 9 may respond to the loss by internalising their feelings and seeming not to care. This belies a deep processing of the death of their pet and beginning to understand the permanence of death and the reality of the impermanence of life.

Children generally have the concept that all living things do, in time, die, and that death is final and irreversible. When the death of their pet happens, this understanding ushers them into a deeper relationship with the feelings associated with the permanence of death and feelings of loss. They may come face to face with the reality of their own mortality and feel this deeply. If their pet can die, so can parents, siblings and friends. Children of this age group, poised as they are at the beginnings of adolescence, may express their grief in ways akin to adults. Conversely, they may withdraw; disengage from schoolwork and the family unit. They also become intensely curious about death and want clear and concise explanations so they can piece together for themselves a narrative of what happens when life end and death occurs. They may want to see the body of your pet, if appropriate, and continue to need to speak about the actual event or details of the death for some time after.

In this often turbulent time when adolescents are at the cusp of their young adult lives, the death of a pet can be a significant event, all the more so because often they have grown up with their pet and its death signifies for them the loss of and end of their childhood.

They may express their grief by crying and displaying anger, sadness or frustration. The death of their pet may be intimately connected to thoughts and feelings about their own mortality and of the impermanence of life that they may perceive as scary, engulfing or even pointless. They may question the meaning of life and what their place and part is in it all. Peer pressure is a significant factor for most adolescents and they may feel embarrassed to express their feelings for the death and loss of their pet. As a parent, you know your child and young person best and providing safe and private places for them to cry or just to be, is very useful for them. Making a place in your home where photos of the pet are visible, possibly a thoughts journal or book that family members can write in as time passes, having candles to light or objects that belonged to the pet, like collars, tags, favourite toys can be very supportive to give adolescents a tangible place and series of actions to express their sorrow.

Pick up on their cues your adolescent is giving you and if appropriate, include them in significant decisions and discussions without fostering the burden of adult responsibility onto them. Speak to them about the validity and significance of the loss and speak to other parents whose similar aged children may have experienced the death of a pet. Encourage your adolescent to honour their love for their pet, to write a eulogy for the funeral if you are having one or to create something in a medium they are interested in.

For all children
Tell stories to your child and ask them to contribute theirs about their pet- what they remember and funny and loving events that have occurred during your time with your pet. Ask them questions like, what do you love about your pet that is always with you? Explain to them that their pet has died but the love you have for them lives on. Ask them how they can express their love for their pets in their daily lives?

Victoria Spence

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