Pet bereavement: how do age-related developmental stages affect a child’s perceptions & reactions to the death of their pet?
From Grief to Grace
Pet Bereavement Counseling
With Pina De Rosa, APLB/AAVSB
The loss of a beloved pet can be the deepest heartbreak of our lives. With each article, we will address and answer a key topic with Certified Pet Grief Counselor, Pina De Rosa (APLB / AAVSB).
If you wish to send in questions for Pina, please submit them below.
With this first topic we get to look at how do age-related developmental stages affect a child’s perceptions and reactions to the death of their pet?
Age-related development stages affect a child’s perception in several ways. The death of a pet is crucial in a child’s life and how it is handled is likely to create positive or negative memories that will mark them for the rest of their life. The loss of a pet is often times the first time a child is faced with the concept of mortality. Honesty is paramount. Though parents often think it is best to shelter the children from such upsetting experience as grief, that is usually unadvisable. Children may grow up thinking it is wrong to grieve or cry. When children are old enough to form judgments, they understand if they are being excluded and kept out of something important. While they experience grief differently than adults, children need support in understanding their loss, in leaning how to mourn, and creating loving ways to celebrate their pet’s life.
2-3 Year Olds: While young toddlers do not understand the concept of death, transparency is key. They should be told the pet died and is not coming back. Because children at this age may think it has to do with their (naughty) behavior, they need to be reassured they did not do anything to cause the pet’s death. It is perfectly ok for the adult to show grief and tears, in moderation. The child will model / understand it is ok to cry, and the healing power of tears. Though they do not quite understand the concept of death, they will accept it.
4-6 Year Olds: Similar to the toddlers, these young children may not understand the concept of death, especially its permanence. They may think the pet is asleep somewhere else, and may even be continuing to eat and play somewhere else. It is good to talk with them regularly, so they can express their feelings and be reassured. They will likely need to be reassured it was not their naughty behavior nor anger that caused the pet to die. The grief may manifest itself in physical reactions such as disruption of their bladder or bowels, as well as a shift in the way they play, sleep or eat.
7-9 Year Olds: Children in this age group understand the permanence of death. They often ask innocent question that may appear somewhat morbid. They are not usually concerned about their own death, but they can become quite worried about their parents’ dying. Like the younger children, they also need to be reassured it was not their naughty behavior nor anger that caused the pet to die. Aside from the physical manifestations, their grief may reveal itself in reactions such as aggression, clinging, withdrawing, becoming anti-social, and having problems in school.
10-12 Year Olds: Children in this age group have the capacity to understand the inevitability of death for us all. They will likely cry a lot of tears and need caring loving support during this sorrowful time. They can understand that tears can be healing. It is ok to share feelings to a reasonable level. If the adult has a fear of death, they are likely to model it. If there have been prior losses in the family, the death of a pet may bring up those painful memories for the children. It is good to talk with them regularly, so they can express their concerns and be reassured.
Adolescents: Children in this age group have the capacity to react as adults. Then the next day they may need to be reassured just like younger children do. Adolescence is a period marked by the exploration of their true feelings and learning how to express them. If there is conflict with a parent or if there is disapproval of their peers, it will make the mourning even more challenging for the adolescent. Their emotions will span from total lack of concern one day, to ultra-sensitive the next. To help them deal with the loss, it is essential to avoid friction and that they feel supported.
Young Adults: Losing a pet as a young adult can be particularly difficult. Young adults have the capacity to react as adults. Often they were especially close to that pet during their childhood and they frequently feel the added guilt of having left home to go to a new school, to start a new job, to get married etc… More often than not, that distance precludes them from saying goodbye, or being present with the family as they honor their pet’s life.
When it comes to coping with the death of a beloved pet, younger children are not so interested in adult detail or logic because some of that logic or detail might be lost on them. Conversations about death need to be tailored to their sensitivity and comprehension level. Often times they simply need to be reassured with simple and adequate answers that fit with their present level of curiosity and consciousness.
Their perceptions are different from adults in that they grasp concepts more at their simplest face value. Children do not accept death the way adults do. They often take on guilt and hold themselves responsible for something bad happening to the people and the animals they love. It is not uncommon for them to feel that it is because of something they did, therefore their pet was punished with death. While adults may feel guilt also, the difference is that children do not have the ability to talk about their negative feelings - such as guilt and fear - and they are often unable to express them. Those repressed feelings can end up coming out in the form of nightmares during their sleep.
Besides their parents, there are several people and caregivers in a child’s life who can help them cope with the loss of a beloved pet. People such as brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, grandparents, daycare providers, their teachers, the librarian, and even their peers can all be a source of support as children are unable to cope by themselves. If the school teachers start to notice that their participation in class may drop, that the child starts to daydream, or they may even stop doing their homework - these are all indicative that the child is needing support in coping with the loss. It is not unusual for their sleep, their appetite and their mood to be negatively impacted. The following are some activities that the counselor could suggest to these other caretakers as a way to support the child through this shocking life experience. The librarian could suggest some specific books that address the loss of a pet, such as “Until We Meet Again” by Melissa Lyons. The teacher could schedule a special class to discuss their pets and their death, which helps the child’s ability to cope with such distressing loss. This is often is the children’s first experience with death. This can be a traumatic experience that will likely impact them for as long as they live. The peer’s presence can be helpful. And the better the adult is able to cope with their own emotional issues about that loss, the less traumatic the experience can be for the child who is still learning to deal with this type of pain.
A specific resource that I wholeheartedly recommend is Melissa Lyons’ children’s book “Until We Meet Again” is a very sweet, touching and helpful book. You can order it on several outlets, including on www.PetBereavementCounseling.com/Resources - When ordered through my site, a portion of the proceeds go to #MissionWellington and its www.TreatsForPups.com philanthropic legacy – bringing “doggie bags” of pet food, blankets and supplies to the homeless pets living out in the streets.
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