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Wisconsin Parent

Helping a Child Deal With the Loss of a Pet

Apr 11, 2014 01:15PM ● By Brooke McGee
A pet—man’s best friend. That term can apply not only to adults, but especially to children. We all know that to a child, it doesn’t matter if that companion is a dog, cat, hamster, or bunny. When you have a pet a bond is formed—and it becomes a part of the family.

One of the greatest things about having children participate with the care of a pet is the recognition of responsibility. Along with that comes affection and learning compassion. Kids can also learn (quickly!) that caring for others is not always easy. Sacrifices need to be made. In my family experience, caring for a pet helped my children to learn how difficult it can be at times to sacrifice for those you love. (No, we can’t play, we have to clean your birdcage today.)

And through these real and, valuable lessons, an unforgettable bond can be made. But at times, suddenly that bond, that valued family member and teacher is gone. For smaller children this can be the first time loss is experienced. The death of an animal can be traumatic, confusing and, of course, NOT FAIR! No matter the age, the loss of a family pet puts strain on the entire family. Everyone is affected, even if you’re just witnessing your child’s pain over the loss of their beloved goldfish.

Grief comes in stages. Some children might be old enough for you to explain this. With others, you may just have to help guide them through the grief process with understanding and compassion. This may be hard, especially if you are grieving too. First suggested by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross., we are told that five stages of grief (typically) come in this order:

  • Denial- This did NOT happen! You’re wrong! Stop lying! They’re going to be fine!
  • Anger-You never took him for a walk! I didn’t like them anyways! I hate myself for not doing better!
  • Bargaining- Praying, pleading. If they just come home I’ll always be good...
  • Depression- Realization that the loss is real. They are gone.
  • Acceptance-Eventually understanding that life goes on. I can still go on.
This experience, of course, will not be the same for everyone. Who you are comes into play. While some may internalize their feelings, locking themselves in their bedroom, other children may lash out, cry or even act up at school. No matter the outlet, we as parents need to realize that the loss of a pet is very real to them.

Some ways that we can help our children (and ourselves) through the loss are:

  • Validate that the feelings are real and reassure them the feelings are normal.
  • Listen.
  • Give space when they ask for it. If someone is not ready to talk, it will create more intense feelings.
  • Make yourself available to talk, or hug or cry with them.
  • Allow keepsakes. Do not try to erase the memory—you can’t. For some, a memorial service of sorts in honor of the pet may be helpful.
paynebaby2Dealing with the loss of a loved one is extremely difficult. Whether the loss is human or a pet, the loved one was just that… loved. Celebrating the times your family had together is one of the best ways you can honor their memory.

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