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Helping Kids Deal with the Loss of a Pet

Dr. Robi Ludwig
June 27, 2017

What to do when a pet dies.

Losing a pet can impact the entire family, but it can be particularly traumatic for children because it's usually their first encounter with loss and death.  As parents, we can feel overwhelmed and helpless knowing that we cannot shield our kids from the painful reality of death. Although we can't stop our kids from having a broken heart, there are things we can do to make their bereavement process as healthy and manageable as possible.

The first step to help kids learn how to cope with the loss of a pet is to be honest with them. As difficult as this may feel it's important to tell them the truth! Stay away from half truths and euphemistic descriptions about death. Instead, sensitively explain to your child that his or her pet has died. A child's understanding about death will vary based on his age. 

According to the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, kids between the ages of 7 and 9 tend to have the most questions about death. If your child asks you what happens after death, you can explain your understanding about life after death, but it's also okay to admit that you're not entirely sure.

This loss can also trigger a child's fears that you or other people he or she loves will die. Remember to be patient and try to address these fears as they come up. For example, if your child asks you if you're going to die and leave them too, you can say something like, "Most people die when they are very old, and I don't plan to leave this earth for a very long time."

The second step is to honor your child's feelings. Help your child to express his or her grief. You can encourage your children to make drawings or write stories about their pet. It's also very helpful to have them recall happy memories, which allows them to both grieve and remember happier times with their pet. 

Kids may need to cry and express their feelings of loss, which is to be expected. They might also struggle with other complex emotions like anger, denial and guilt. Encourage your child to talk with you about his or her feelings. This will allow you to explain that what they are experiencing is normal and a natural part of the grieving process. Ultimately, parents want to help their children move through their feelings of depression and eventually come to a place of acceptance.

One of the ways to encourage your child's healthy acceptance of a pet's death is to find a way to memorialize this passing. Having a burial, memorial or similar type of ceremony helps to reinforce the importance of the pet's life while also marking its death. This can be done in many different ways. Kids should be allowed to participate in whatever way feels right for them. Maybe it's marking the gravesite, making a garden stone with the pet's name on it, planting a tree in remembrance of the pet, or designing a collage of the pet's photos and placing it in a frame.

Managing loss and death is ironically one of the most difficult aspects of life.  But if handled correctly, the loss of a family pet can be a valuable opportunity to teach an important, yet tough life lesson about how to deal with loss in an open and healthy way.

April 8, 2015

When our dog died one of the kids bought a Grow A Tree kit , and took the strongest seedling & planted it in memory of Ben the family dog. Now the Balsam Fir is 6 ft. Tall & with rrmembered pleasure we think of Ben.

June 6, 2012

I have 2 dogs and just the thought of loosing them makes me cry every time. I can't stand having the fact that I will loose them one day...eventually. I pray and hope they live as long as they possibly can. It's amazing how much one can love our pets. I love my dogs so much, they truly bring the best out of me. Pets are great for everyone. They're always there when you need them.

April 28, 2012

My husband & I had to put our beautiful Callie down. She was a beautiful calico kitty that took up camping with us . We brought her home with us on 6/29/08. She was such a fun & smart cat, also, she was very healthy. Well, in Oct. 2011 I decided to get her declawed so, took her to New Haven Vet. They at that time talked us in to getting her spayed at the same time she would have been close to being 5 yrs old and very healthy. So, after her surgery she got an infection which she was treated for and seemed to have gotten better then in Jan 2012 she started hiding under our bed and acting very fearful then she wouldn't eat and we had to carry her to her kitty litter and she would lay down in it then she started vomiting so we took her back to the vet and they did some test and said her kidneys were failing and that we would have to put her down which we were with her as she took her last breath on Jan 19 th @ 5:20pm How sad We loved that kitty so much and it's very lonely around here without her. We spent over 600 to do this and now have nothing to show for that money spent. I feel so guilty for taking her for that surgery, she had ruined some of our furniture and I was getting new so, wanted her declawed. I think they did something to her like to much anathema or she had to have her shots before surgery. My husband won't let me have another animal now because of the cost and then something happens. Well sorry, to be so lengthy but, needed to explain. Guilty. :(

March 25, 2012

I have just read some of your comments. I am so sorry that so many of you have not found comfort during the loss of your pets. Losing a pet is very different than losing a person. People tend to be so much less compassionate to people that lose a pet, they only see them as animals. What they don't realize is that so many animals today become true members of our family,in some cases they bring more solace and comfort to us then humans do. I Have lost many pets over the years. It has always been heartbreaking. I had my one cat for twenty three years longer then my children had been alive. I do understand the pain of that loss and how most people don't get it if they have not experienced it. I did cat rescue for about twenty years on my own. I then started to volunteer for a small dog rescue. When I see so many of those dogs it reminds me of what a wonderful life my past and current pets have had. I look at the fear in their little faces and think my pets did not have to experience that and the 5 rescue dogs that I do have will never have to experience it again. My cats and dogs are loved and warm and safe so many aren't. Please think about becoming a volunteer for a rescue. There are so many that need help and in helping them you can help yourself. It sometimes may take awhile to warm up to the job but it is so worth it. I know those of you that may have not lost your pet through death but because your pet went missing may think this wont work for you, but many shelter animals are someone elses lost and missing pet. Talk to people that care and understand what you are going through they are out there. There are many pet loss bereavement sites available such as APLB.org.. There are chat rooms that can help you and you may help someone else in the process. Pat

March 21, 2012

I am an adult whom has always considered my pets as my kids. I have 4 cat-kids now and I dread the thought of ever losing any of them to death! I do not handle death of my own pets well, nor do I handle pets that I pet sit for well either! It's so very hard on me when they are gone! I love them all so very much and miss them so very much when they pass away! Please give advice for us adults as to how to handle our loss of our pet-kids that pass away!

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