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How Children Grieve Pet Loss

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Dealing with pet loss is difficult enough, but when children are involved, it can be even more heartbreaking. If your child is asking you why their pet is never coming back, you might find yourself at a loss for words. But while your first instinct might be to protect your child from the truth, according to Dr. Susan Cohen, Director of Counseling at the Animal Medical Center of New York, honesty is always the best policy.

Kids go through different stages in their understanding of death, so the appropriate explanation should really be based on their age.

Ages 4-5

Kids this age usually engage in what's called magical thinking. What they see in their minds and on TV seem equally real. Since they have no real understanding of the finality of death, or the relationship between cause and effect, it's very important to stress that Swimmy the goldfish's disappearance is NOT their fault.

Don't be surprised if your five year old asks the same questions about Swimmy's disappearance every night: "Where did Swimmy go? Why won't Fido come back?'' It is reassuring to a child to hear the same answers.

Be clear and straightforward in your answers: "Swimmy the goldfish is dead. This means Swimmy won't be swimming or moving around. Swimmy felt no pain and is no longer here with us and will not come back.''

Do not use the term "put to sleep'' with children. This might upset them and make them scared of sleeping themselves. A better and more concrete term, according to Cohen, is "we helped Fido to die,'' but reassure them that most people and vets can usually make animals better.

Ages 5-10

Honesty is the best policy; we can't protect kids from the truth of pet loss. Resist the temptation to tell your child that the dog ran away, if you know it was hit by a car.

Give your child a job or project. Can the child choose a special frame to use in memory of the dog? Rituals can help the grieving process - saying goodbye with a proper funeral or by simply putting all of your favorite pictures with that pet into a special album have been found to be beneficial.

Ages 10-12

As children get older, they understand more, so involve them in what's happening by taking them to talk to the vet. Let them hear about the animal's medical condition, how the pet died, etc.  If you had to make the decision to euthanize your pet, be honest and explain how the animal will no longer be in pain and that if they had stayed alove, they would not have had a good quality of life.

Children at this age might not show you what they feel, even when they are feeling a lot related to the death of their pet. Watch to see if their grades are slipping or they seem withdrawn. Give them opportunities to talk. 

Most of all, let your child learn to handle sadness. It's an important part of growing up.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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