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Death of a pet: First With Kids - Vermont Children's Hospital, Fletcher Allen
Help Children Cope with the Death of a Pet
One of the saddest questions I get from parents is how to how to help a child cope with the death of a pet. Well, let me see if I can provide some information that is not too dog-gone difficult or a cat-tastrophe to deal with.
First, it is important to understand that how a child deals with a pet’s death depends largely on the child’s age and personality. For example, until children are age five or six, their view of the world is very concrete—so they don’t understand death, but might understand your telling them that a pet’s body was not working anymore and cannot be fixed.
They may not understand this is permanent, and you may have to repeat the fact that the pet cannot be fixed and will not come back. A key concept at this age, and even as one gets older, is that the child is not to blame for this happening.
Avoid phrases such as the pet “went away” or “went to sleep,” since children may become fearful when you tell them a family member is “going away” or “going to sleep.”
Children between six and 10 do understand the finality of death, but don’t quite understand that it will eventually happen to them one day. Providing accurate, simple, clear and honest answers to their questions is the best way to talk with these younger children.
Teens understand that eventually everyone dies. They may experience some guilt, and it is important to encourage the expression and sharing of grief even though they think they’re too old to cry.
Sharing your own grief and even tears in front of your child or teen may actually help your child deal with their own emotional pain and loss. If your child is old enough, be open and comforting and realize there is no single right way to feel or grieve around the death of a pet. Your children may show it through actions or behaviors ranging from sadness to anger to guilt.
Make sure your child knows that despite the loss, you can continue to talk about and love the happy memories of the pet forever— and maybe over time welcome a new pet into the family.
Your child’s doctor or your pet’s veterinarian can help, as well as provide access to books, counseling and even sometimes support groups that can guide a child and family through this difficult time, especially if your child or teen is manifesting the grief in terms of a change in mood, behavior, or school performance.
Hopefully tips like these will bring peace of mind to you and your children when it comes to dealing with the pet-ticulars of helping them deal with the death of a loved one.
Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. You can also catch "First with Kids" weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.FletcherAllen.org/firstwithkids.