The day you and your family bring home your new pet, Fluffy, is truly exciting. Whether it is a dog, cat or hamster, owning a pet can provide a valuable opportunity for your child to learn responsibility, care and patience.
But what about when the inevitable happens, and Fluffy eventually dies? Losing a pet can be a very traumatic event for children. It is often their first experience with death. For parents, though, it offers a chance to help kids cope with grief in healthy ways.
Shasta County resident and therapist Gretchen O’Connell, MFT, has helped people of all ages cope with loss, both in her private practice and in bereavement support groups she facilitates. O’Connell suggests using a simple, straightforward approach with children when a beloved pet has passed on; she abbreviates this approach “ABC.” She encourages parents to give kids all the information, be there, and offer choices. O’Connell says, “If you use this guiding principle, you basically can’t go wrong.” But is it really as easy as ABC?
A: O’Connell explains that it is important to give children all the information about the death of a pet. Because kids are imaginative, she says, they fill in the blanks when information is left out. For instance, your child may conclude that the death is somehow her fault if you don’t explain what actually happened.
Be careful, though, as young children especially can be very literal. If you tell your four-year-old that Fluffy has “gone to sleep,” she may become fearful of going to bed at night. O’Connell suggests being very clear and specific. For instance, you can say something like, “Fluffy’s heart has stopped working.” Be truthful, and your child can ask for clarification if needed. According to O’Connell, you don’t have to worry about offering too much information. “Kids tune out what they don’t understand,” she says.
B: Being there for your child after the family pet has died may seem obvious, but it’s important to remember that you, too, may be upset and grieving for Fluffy. If you find that you are too distraught to be there physically and emotionally, then your child needs someone else, such as a grandparent or trusted friend, to rely on.
Such support should be ongoing, too. “Kids grieve differently than adults,” says O’Connell. “They do it in fits and starts.” She explains that this non-linear grieving can show up even years after the loss. For children, grief over a pet’s death can also trigger memories of other losses they have experienced in their young lives. For example, sadness over a previous divorce could resurface – this is important to remember when offering support to a grieving child.
C: The third element of the ABC approach is choice. O’Connell points out that parents often try to protect their kids from death by excluding them from certain aspects of the experience, like seeing the body or being there for the burial. She suggests that, instead, children should be given choices as they find their way through the grieving process. “Parents should let kids participate as much as they feel inclined,” she says.
Kids, especially very young kids, are often nonverbal. “It’s important to look not just at what they say, but what they do,” says O’Connell. Offering an array of activities, like art, can aid in coping. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) suggests that children may benefit from drawing pictures of the departed pet, writing a letter, compiling photos into an album, or participating in a memorial service. O’Connell adds, “There is really no right or wrong way to grieve.”
Of course, saying farewell to Fluffy is never going to be easy for your child. But since children look to their parents when deciding how to react, it’s up to you to model healthy grieving. “If the adults are okay, the kids will be okay,” O’Connell says. By using the ABCs of grief as a guideline, you can support your child through the complicated emotions that accompany loss.