The death of a beloved family pet may be the first kind of grief a child experiences. Being able to grieve may help them when they experience death later on.
The size of the animal doesn’t relate to the amount of grief felt.
Your child’s hamster or other small animal may be just as important to them as the family cat or dog. You may have felt the hurt yourself either as an adult or a child when somebody said to you “It’s only a dog, why don’t you just get another?” Your child may feel this way about their little pet. Don’t diminish the importance of the animal in their life. Be aware of siblings
who might be teasing them for getting upset if the sibling doesn’t feel the same.
Expect questions and be prepared to talk about them
Some children may have questions about what happens after an animal or person dies. As adults we sometimes take this to mean they are thinking in a spiritual or religious context – but often children mean what happens to the body. They may have heard things about what happens to corpses and want to know if this will apply to their pet. They are not being ghoulish; it is childish curiosity.
They may want to know what happened at the vets if you had to have the animal euthanized. While you may feel upset yourself and not want to talk about it, it is important that your child is allowed to discuss it. Sometimes they are looking for reassurance that their pet wasn’t hurt by the vet.
A useful way to talk about euthanasia is that it is not something we do TO the animal, it is something we do FOR the animal to alleviate their suffering. If you are feeling guilty or doubtful about the decision you had to make it is good for you to remember that too.
Help your children start the grieving process.
When a humans die it is usual to have a funeral or some type of memorial. Sometimes with a pet we don’t have the opportunity or don’t know the best thing to do.
A memorial can be a burial if that’s suitable for a small animal. Make sure that the grave is deep enough and the box that is acting as a coffin is secure enough that wild animals will not be able to disturb the body.
If you have ashes to scatter discuss with the rest of the family when and where this is going to take place. Your child may want to write a poem or talk about what they loved about their pet.
Something to bear in mind is what will happen if you have to move house in the future. A way around that is to scatter the ashes in a public place or in a plant pot where you can grow a rose or other plant so that you can take it with you when you move.
Many of my clients have had ashes or some fur put into jewellery and each member of the family has a piece. Some clients keep the urn in the fireplace or on a shelf. Curious children are sometimes fascinated and frequently open the urn so if that is something that will upset you this might not be your best option.
A comforting thing for the whole family is to make an album about the pet. Younger children can draw pictures and older children can write poems or stories. Perhaps you have photographs you can put in it.
This encourages discussion, which is an important way to air feelings.
Your feelings might be different to your child’s.
You may be breaking your heart and trying to avoid talking about your pet, whilst your child might have questions. If you can’t bring yourself to talk about it arrange for another family member or close friend to chat to them. Don’t shoo them away or make them feel it is wrong to want to talk about it.
Let your child know that being upset is okay
Grief is a natural thing and children should not be expected to hold their feelings in or ‘be brave.’ Seeing a parent upset can be a good thing in some ways. It’s like it is giving your child permission to be upset too.
However, some children may think that if they cry it will upset the parent even more. Let them know it is okay to show their feelings.
Does your child hide their feelings?
If your child tends to keep their feelings to themselves, they might be grieving even if they don’t look upset. Look out for any unusual behaviour.
If your little one is unusually quiet or playing up more than usual it could be a sign that they are secretly upset. If their appetite has changed or they can’t sleep, that could also be a sign that they are upset.
When is it the right time to get another pet?
Many of my clients tell me they could never get another pet – they are just too upset. Then, a little while later, they send me a photo of the latest addition to the family.
There is never a right or wrong time. What is important is that you remember and explain that another animal is not taking the PLACE of the pet who has passed away , they are just filling the SPACE. Your new pet will likely have a very different personality. If you would like another animal but are unsure of how the rest of the family will feel you could ask them if they have room in their heart for another pet.
Julie Wood is a pet grief expert who helps adults and children after the death of their pet.