The loss of the family pet can be particularly confusing for young children who may as yet have no concept of what death is and what happens when people or animals die. The feelings experienced by a grieving child are usually the same as those felt by adults, but are typically more intense and come in shorter bursts, which can be very disconcerting for both the child and their parents.
Children of different ages are likely to view death and demonstrate their grief in different ways. For example, younger children will probably not have any preconceptions about death, whereas older children will have begun to develop a firmer grasp of what death is and what it means to die. This will have a huge bearing both on how a child responds and on the type of questions and concerns that may arise.
Symptoms of grief can range from variable sleep patterns to problems at school and so-called clingy behaviour. These will also vary according to the age of the child, their attachment to the pet & their understanding of death.
Parents can give support and understanding in the following ways:
- Allow them to express their feelings and concerns. Try not to lose patience or treat their worries as trivial, and make it clear that they aren’t the only ones feeling upset. Letting them know that you are also upset will reassure them that their feelings are justified and normal.
- Don’t try and protect children too much; stick to truthful explanations avoiding ideas of being ‘put to sleep’ that can be misinterpreted, and lead to potential fears about sleep and death being connected.
- Reassure them that no one is to blame for the dog dying, least of all the child themselves.
- Try to involve older children in decisions about euthanasia and possibly with planning a memorial.
- Encourage them to talk about the dog and recall happy memories.
- Be sure to notify their teacher(s) when they go back to school so that they are aware of any differences in mood or attitude; they may also be able to offer support and a friendly ear.