Children and Pets - Grief Following Loss of a Dog

By Courtney Barnes, BSc, DVM; Debbie Stoewen DVM, MSW, RSW, PhD

For most children, pets are the best of friends and a part of the family. Many children have special relationships with their pets, and dogs are no exception. A dog can even be a child’s closest confidante, the uncomplicated, unconditional love that only a dog can offer. Sadly, and inevitably, the joy of sharing life with a pet dog will be accompanied by the grief of losing him. Although the loss of a pet is inevitable, there are ways to help your child to cope with it.

"The loss of a pet is a valuable opportunity to teach children that death is a part of life, natural and universal."

The loss of a pet may be a child’s first experience with death. It is natural for parents to want to protect their children from the painful realities of the world – including death – but with care and support, your child can grow through the grief and heal in ways that will better prepare them for the many significant losses that life inevitably brings. The loss of a pet is a valuable opportunity to teach children that death is a part of life, natural and universal.

How do I talk with my child about death?

In the desire to protect children from the reality of death, it may be tempting to make up a story as to why the pet is no longer present. This is not helpful, however. Stories such as the dog “ran away” or “went to live on a farm” may leave your child feeling abandoned or believing that their pet will return some day. And children often find out about their dog’s death – sometimes many years later. Honesty is the best policy, in the short and the long term.

It is important to realize that children’s understanding of death is related to their age and stage of development. Children 3 to 5 years of age see death as temporary and potentially reversible. At this age, it is best to say that the pet has stopped moving, does not see or hear anymore, and will not wake up. Be prepared to need to explain this several times, as children often continue to ask where their pet is and when it will come back. Children between age 5 and 8 better understand the nature and consequences of death, but it is not until they are 9 and older that they can fully comprehend the permanence, universality, and finality of death.

Children of all ages need simple, honest information about what death means and what it looks like. Children do not need complicated explanations; they need love, comfort, and support. Be honest and use simple, age-appropriate terms.

  • Younger children need to know that bodies stop working when they die (bodies can no longer move, hear, feel, see, or taste).
  • Older children need to know what condition led the body to stop working and why it could not be cured by a veterinarian. Use simple explanations when discussing euthanasia and avoid jargon that could be misunderstood (e.g., “putting Fido to sleep” or “he will fall asleep and not wake up”). These terms often cause children to worry that if they fall asleep, they will not wake up.

Be aware that, no matter what age, children will ask questions. You may hear, "Why did my dog have to die?" and "Will I ever see my dog again?" Some children will engage in “magical thinking” and ask, "Can I make him come back If I wish hard enough or if I am really good?” With every question, be honest with your answer. Use simple and easy-to-understand terms and be patient. Although your child may ask the same questions repeatedly, it is through your patience, consistency, and reassurance that they will be able to understand death and work through their grief.

"Encourage your child to talk openly about death so that you can understand their point of view and can provide information and reassurance as needed."

Encourage your child to talk openly about death so that you can understand their point of view and can provide information and reassurance as needed. Many parents are surprised with how matter-of-fact children can be about death and dying once they have talked about it in honest and simple terms. There are many books geared toward answering children’s questions about death. Finding an age-appropriate book may be helpful.

As you talk with your child, be sure to share your feelings if they do not overwhelm you or your child or detract from your ability to be supportive. Being honest about what you feel conveys the message that it is normal to feel sad and will give your child permission to share their feelings as well.

Should my child say goodbye to their pet?

It is important for children to have the opportunity to say goodbye to their special friend, but they should always a choice as to how much they are involved with saying goodbye. Older children may choose to be with their dog when the euthanasia is performed, while younger children may choose to say goodbye while their dog is still alive. Other children may choose to view their pet’s body after death has occurred, reassuring themselves that their beloved pet has really died. The opportunity to say goodbye helps children to move through their grief. You know your child best and can help direct them on the most appropriate way to say goodbye that will not be overwhelming to them.

If a personal goodbye is not possible, then drawing a goodbye card or writing a goodbye letter to place under a pillow, by the pet’s burial site, or in a memory book, can help with closure.

How might my child grieve?

Grieving is a very personal experience, even for children. Children grieve just as intensely as adults do, but often have different ways of expressing their grief. Children’s response to loss may include tearfulness, sleep disturbance, anxiousness, bedwetting, anger or misbehaviour, and impaired concentration at school. These responses are normal and usually temporary. Invite your child to talk about their feelings and reassure them that these feelings are okay. Listen without judgment and support the need to grieve.

As they gradually accept their pet’s death, children’s expressions of grief will subside. However, if their grief becomes protracted and your child is not able to maintain their normal routines, then seek the assistance of your doctor or a qualified mental health professional.

How can I support my child?

A child must grieve their pet in their own way. Moving through loss is a process; it cannot be hurried. Although there is no “right way” for children to grieve their pet, there are ways you can support your child.

  • Find comfort in routines and play. All creatures, whether human or animal, find comfort in the daily routines that give our days form and focus. Maintaining the normal daily schedule for meals, bedtime, and play time is an important part of coping with a life-changing loss. Laughter – or taking a break from the sadness – is a healing salve for hurting hearts.
  • Honor your pet. After a pet has died, children may want to bury their pet, make a memorial, or have a ceremony to honor their pet. Alternatively, you could spread your pet’s ashes or plant a tree in your pet’s memory. Looking at pictures or building a scrapbook can also be meaningful ways to honor the relationship you had with your dog.
  • Make space for remembering. Children need to be given time to remember their pet. Encourage your child to share their favorite stories about their dog and to remember the happiest times. Those memories help the natural healing process and can provide great comfort months, and even years, after your dog’s death. You and other family members can help by sharing your feelings and special memories. Children should not feel like they are the only ones grieving and that everyone else has “gotten over it”.
  • Encourage creativity. Children with less developed verbal skills benefit from other opportunities to process their grief. Crafting scrapbooks or memory boxes, or creating a collage of mementos, can help them understand and articulate important feelings. Young children can be encouraged to manage their grief through drawings, play, or other activities.
  • Read with your child. There are many well-written children's books about pet loss. Visit your lending library or purchase a “gift” book for your child that they can keep as a keepsake.
  • Create a support network. It is important to tell others who play a significant role in your child's life (a favorite relative, teacher, neighbor, or school counselor) about the loss, so they too can offer support in this difficult time.
  • Consider a new adoption. Well-intentioned people often suggest a new adoption to ease the pain. Although there is no “right” time to adopt, it is vital that children do not get the message that their dog is easily replaced. Every dog is a special friend and should be honored as such. Give the time to grieve. Allow the time to heal. Children will learn that loss, and the grief that accompanies it, is a natural part of life.

How long will my child grieve?

Remember, children understand death in relation to their age and developmental stage. Each child will grieve their pet in their own unique way and at their own pace. One child might want to talk about their pet all the time, while another might want to quietly draw pictures. The experience of loss is different for everyone, even children. Grief is not linear and does not have a timeline. Sometimes the grief may return months later, long after a child seems “over it”. In all cases, only when we move toward the experience of loss can we, children included, learn to live with it. With care and support, your child can grow through the grief and heal.

Helping your child through the shared loss of a beloved pet can also help you to process your own grief and allow healing together.

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