There remain some damaging myths about children and young people’s assumed resilience to loss, including a mistaken belief that children do not grieve with the same intensity as adults. Some people also believe that pets’ deaths are trivial losses for children.
But research studies with adult psychiatric patients have highlighted the long-term impacts of loss and grief in early childhood. The ways in which children and young people cope with grief will depend on a variety of factors including their support system and earlier experiences of loss.
Some societies today tend to remove children and young people from experiences of loss, death and dying. Parents and carers do this to ‘protect’ the child or young person from emotionally difficult experiences. The child or young person is effectively denied opportunities to develop their own coping skills and prevented from building a sound foundation for dealing with future losses.
Pet loss, if sensitively handled, can provide a valuable learning experience that enables the building of positive strategies for coping with transition and loss in later life.
How to recognise grief in young children:
This list is adapted from Winston’s Wish: Information for Young People on Feelings and Thoughts Associated with Grief (Winston’s Wish, 2008). Winston’s Wish, the Charity for Bereaved Children offers a wealth of guidance for bereaved children, their parents, other carers and professionals.
A child or young person may ask “Why has my pet left me?” They may feel rejected.
This may seem an inappropriate reaction to loss and it can be associated with feelings of guilt. A younger child may not be able to identify this emotion, but will express it through uncooperative, challenging behaviour. A child may be angry with their pet for dying, their parent/carer for not involving them in decisions about the pet’s body, or the veterinary team for not being able to save their pet. Informing teachers and youth workers about the recent loss of a pet can be helpful in developing understanding and supportive responses.
As children and young people learn about death and loss they begin to realise that death is universal and permanent. This naturally generates anxiety and questions about the future: “Will I die?” “When will I die,” “Do children die?” “Will my mum and dad die too?” Anxiety can cause feelings of being powerless and a child may strive to take some positive control, for example by planning a memorial service for their pet.
As loss and death generate anxiety and fear, it is understandable that children and young people may avoid talking about their deceased pet, avoid contact with the body, avoid visiting the grave or chosen memorial spot. Avoidance is a natural defence against feelings that threaten to overwhelm.
- Becoming or feeling ill
Grief takes a lot of energy, and children and young people may become physically unwell with headaches, stomach ache, back pain, insomnia, bad dreams, coming down with a severe cold, worsening of a pre-existing condition such as asthma. It is vital to check any illness or worsening of a medical condition with a health professional and take time out to recover.
This is a natural part of grieving. A child will often feel mixed up about their emotions, which may be contradictory (relief a pet is no longer suffering mixed with extreme sadness they are no longer here). They may be unclear about events that led to the loss or what death means. This can result in asking a lot of questions: “What happens to her/his body now it’s buried?” “Why did we have to make the decision to help him/her die?”
Linked to feelings of sadness and depression, a child or young person may wonder what’s the point of things.
Linked closely with shock, a child may carry on as if their pet was still there or refuse to believe the loss is permanent. They may set out the pet’s food plates or want go to the riding stables as usual.
- Engaging in distracting behaviour
It is not unusual for grieving children to keep themselves very busy with activities at school or socially to avoid engaging with the painful emotions of grief.
Grief can evoke strong feelings of fear about the future and what will happen to loved ones. Adults should never dismiss these fears by saying “There’s no need to be afraid or simply “Don’t be frightened” but should allow a safe opportunity to explore the fears and talk them through.
A child or young person may believe it is their fault the pet died. They may have a need to explore this possibility with a trusted adult and check out the reality. Alternatively they may withdraw into their own thoughts of self-blame. It is vital that a sensitive adult talks through the difference between more positive aspects of responsibility (being responsible for preventing the pet from suffering) and things completely out of the child’s control such as accidents.
- Lack of energy
The opposite of keeping busy all the time with distracting behaviours is a lack of energy usually originating from feelings of pointlessness and deep sadness.
Watching a loved pet slowly becoming ill or seeing them after the development of sudden illness or an accident can evoke strong feelings of powerlessness. Enabling opportunities for active participation in end-of-life care, decision-making for the pet and memorialisation choices can help a child regain a sense of greater power and control.
This is extreme anger and is often expressed through physical violence. Providing a pillow or cushion that the child can punch, or encouraging participation in physical activity can provide an outlet for the energy of rage.
Feeling down, unhappy and miserable, not always expressed though crying. Sadness is a core emotion of grief.
A child may look for a deceased pet and run up to an animal in the street or park that is the same breed, colour or type in an effort to relocate their loved one. This is a normal part of grieving and is a behaviour often seen in adults. Sometimes a child may say they have seen the pet in a dream or feels the pet’s presence.
Wanting to see the lost pet for one last time, to stroke them, ride a pony again, is a normal part of the grief process. Making a memory box can enable a child to engage with positive and not so positive memories of the relationship, and also provides a physical container for grief.
How you can help the child feel involved in the loss of their pet
Most children and young people wish to have the opportunity to say goodbye, and be involved in the decision making process. Allowing children to have age appropriate conversations about the loss of the pet, or preparing them for the loss will help them feel involved.
On the whole, children and young people are very keen to be involved in ceremonies but they should not be forced to participate if they don’t want to.
Here are some ideas to allow children to be involved:
These are some ways in which children might like to take part.
- Choose the memorial or grave spot. Do some of the digging, putting flowers on the body, throwing on earth, burying the pet’s ashes/scattering them or burying a linking item in the absence of being able to have a body or remains to bury, for example a used horse shoe, bit or bridle, collar, lead, identity disc
- Hold a goodbye ceremony or funeral, depending on their beliefs.
- “Organise” the event, taking great care to plan details.
- Invite good friends, family and others.
- Decorate a grave or memorial spot, maybe marking the spot with stones or shells.
- Find or make a memorial stone and then paint the pet’s name on it or write a message.
- Select bulbs, plants or saplings for planting around the grave.
- Decide what to do with the ashes.
- Keep ashes in a special casket, or bury them and mark/decorate the spot.
- Scatter ashes on favourite walks and special places in the garden.
- Write poems or letters to the animal.
- Paint pictures.
- Make a memory collage of photographs.
- Create a scrapbook with photographs and notes of favourite memories of times shared together.
- Make a memory box containing photographs, notes and linking items, e.g. clay paw print, clipping of fur or hair from a horse’s mane or tail, collar, lead, identity tag, bit, used horse shoe.
- Have a living memorial – plant a tree, bush, shrub or flowers in a special place.
Remember children grieve, and like adults display this grief in many different ways. The key point is to allow the child to be involved where appropriate, and allow open discussions about their feelings. The child should never feel that they can not be upset, or feel shame if they do get upset.
(Thanks to Blue Cross Pet Bereavement service for some of this material)
The Blue Cross Pet Bereavement service is free for anyone who has lost a pet or are facing saying goodbye. Call 0800 0966606 from 8.30am-8.30pm 7 days a week or firstname.lastname@example.org