How you do talk to a child about pet loss? I’m privileged today to share a guest post by Betty Carmack on this topic. She is both a pet counselor and the author of the book Grieving the Death of a Pet, which means she is well-qualified to talk about how to best support young people who lose their furry companion.
Helping Children Grieve a Pet’s Death
By Betty J. Carmack, R.N., Ed.D.
In a recent conversation with a friend, she recounted her experience, as a seven-year old, of her cat, Tippy, dying because of an automobile accident. Her description was vivid in detail–she remembers it as if it happened yesterday, and yet that was about 60 years ago. She spoke of what an impact this loss, her first, made on her. My friend said her family didn’t discuss feelings, yet on some level she felt her parents were supportive of her and her loss. It makes sense that she recommends that adults talk with children about their grief, “talk about their feelings”.
In his 1988 book, When a Pet Dies, Fred Rogers, perhaps better known as “Mr. Rogers,” wrote of losing Mitzi, his dog and best friend, when he was a boy. “We had lost a member of the family…. because of Mitzi I discovered it was all right to cry when somebody you love dies. I learned too, that loss takes time to understand.” He credits his parents with being supportive of him and his grief for Mitzi. He was lucky to have parents who understood the need to openly grieve for a family member who happened to be a pet.
Children can become very attached to pets. They can be best friends, confidantes, and certainly family members. It’s important not to trivialize the relationships that children and adolescents have with pets. I’ve heard people refer to their children’s pets as, “he was like a brother to my child.” As adults, people have shared with me that it was their pet that was their safety, constancy, and stability as they were growing up. So to lose this dearly loved relationship, a child can feel the loss deeply.
A child’s response to a pet’s death is influenced by many factors, for example, closeness of relationship with the pet; degree of support; previous experience, if any, with grief; other life experiences that are happening in the child’s world at the time; circumstances of pet’s death; and the overall way the death is handled in the family.
Let’s review some developmental considerations. The 2000 ELNEC Curriculum presents various children’s ages and their view of death. Children from about two to five years see death as reversible. It’s only after a child moves into five to nine years do they begin to see death as irreversible. Up to about and around five years of age regressive and aggressive behaviors can occur as children can feel out of control of their feelings and responses. As children grow older, they may personify death as “bogeymen” as well as have an increasing interest in the biological aspects of death. This is also an age at which children can feel both responsible for a death and view death as punishment. Pre-adolescents and teens, beginning to sense their own mortality, also have strong emotional reactions (ELNEC, AACN & COH, 2000).
From a page from the website for The Dougy Center, The National Center for Grieving Children and Families (2000), it’s noted that the most basic feeling of loss for a child is that of fear, accompanied by uncertainty. According to them children of all ages have to go through this fear to get to their sense of dependability of life. One of the ways children recover this dependability is if we listen to their fears and validate them.
Linda Goldman cited four “tasks” children have when grieving the death of a pet: “understand that the loss is real, feel the hurt, learn to live life without the pet, and transform the emotional energy of grief into life again” (Living with Loss Magazine, p. 14, Fall, 2012).
How can we be a supportive presence to the children in our life?
In my book, Grieving the Death of a Pet, I offer guides for helping children who are grieving.
- Honor the child’s grief: It is just as real as that of an adult. For children for whom this is can be a first experience of loss, the feelings can be quite frightening and unfamiliar. Often times this is the first experience of grief that a child has, and what is experienced and how it is experienced can stay with the child serving as foundational for later grief. When a child is crying, affirm crying as a way to express sadness. We, too, may cry which, I think, is a healthy way of modeling for children one way in which we express sadness when someone we love dies. Sometimes children may express anger, another valid and understandable feeling. Helping children learn how to express anger in healthy and safe ways is an important lesson. Whether we support and how we support can leave an everlasting mark and lesson. That was certainly the experience of my friend whose cat was killed and for Fred Rogers in his loss of Mitzi.
- Be honest in giving children information and answering their questions: Talk with them at their level of development especially in the area of language. Remember the age of a child influences his or her understanding of death. Children have to be of a particular cognitively developed level to be able to comprehend what death means. Younger children need more simple explanations while older children can handle more complex conversations.
What else can we do to support? From my experience, my own writings and the many resources that are available, I find that what we can do centers around several main themes.
- Respect children’s feelings and their ways of grieving. Include them in both the planning and implementation of rituals so they can not only experience the healing power of ritual and memorial but can also feel included by having their preferences heard and implemented as possible. Offer children ways to express their grief through, for example, creative means such as art, writing, dancing and music. Movement is recognized as a way not only to feel but to express emotions.
- Consider having a ritual that children help to create. Holding a funeral, planting a tree or bush, writing a letter to a pet and/or putting a photograph of the child and family into the grave or with the pet when the pet is cremated, writing a poem, creating an altar – these are just a few of the ways a child can be involved in memorializing a loved animal.
- I also encourage us to remember to honor that tender place where a child is hurting. We need to be exceptionally compassionate with that tender place. Be gently present, offering to sit and talk, or to hug, or to hold when crying or expressing anger.
We are fortunate to have many good books as resources for both children and for us as adults who want to help our grieving children. What I like about these books is that they are a reminder that we don’t have to figure this out all on our own–we have resources. The ones that are asterisked are written more for adults to help us know how to better help and support children in their grief.
Saying Goodbye to Your Pet by Marge Eaton Heegaard (2001)
When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers (1988)
*Helping Children Through Pet Loss by Marilyn George (2010)
When Kitty Passed Away by Linda Makkay
*Pet Loss and Children: Establishing A Healthy Foundation by Cheri Ross Barton (2005)
Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant (1995)
Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant (1997)
The Tenth Good Thing about Barney by J. Viorst (1987)
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia (1982)
Your Heart When Your Animal Friend is Gone: A Children’s Pet Bereavement Workbook by Kimberly A Cardeccia (2004)
The Forever Dog by B. Cochran and D. Andreasen (2007)
Color the Rainbow Bridge by Marilyn George (2010)
*When a Child you Love is Grieving by Harold Ivan Smith (2005)
*Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping by Marty Tousley (1996)
*Grieving the Death of a Pet by Betty Carmack (2003)
What I’ve presented here are guidelines. Nothing is 100% for sure, but these can be helpful. They can give us a starting place.
Linda Goldman wrote that “going on isn’t the same thing as forgetting” (p. 15). She goes on to say that a pet will continue to live on in a child’s heart. Along these same lines, Mr. Rogers reminds his readers, “When a pet dies, we can grow to know that the love we shared is still alive in us and always will be.” This is something that Linda Goldman, Mr. Rogers and I all believe. We have the opportunity to share this belief with the children in our lives.
Let’s use our opportunity to support children in their grief wisely and with sensitivity. We just may be teaching them life lessons they will carry with them and draw on in future loss and grief. For me, that is a true privilege–holding that tender place in our hands.