How can we help children cope with the loss of a beloved pet?
Britt was only five years old when her first pet, named Zazu, died. Zazu had quickly become a part of her daily routine, but after noticing a sudden change in his behavior, Britt's mother, a former bird rehabilitator, knew that he was sick. Unfortunately, they didn't have the money to take Zazu to an emergency vet, and the next morning, his little body was found stiff in his cage.
When Britt asked if Zazu would wake up, her mother explained that his body was done living but would always be close to her heart. They wrapped Zazu's body in tissue paper and placed him in a shoebox before carrying him to a nearby field to be buried. Britt wanted to bury him there so that his body could become part of the earth again and complete the circle of life.
According to the American Pet Products Association's National Pet Owners Survey, approximately 70% of U.S. households own a pet. Our pets have become members of our families, and when the time comes to say goodbye, we experience similar grief to losing a loved one. Helping children navigate that grief and subsequent mourning may not be easy, but there are a few things to keep in mind.
Florence Soares-Dabalos, a licensed mental health professional and on-site veterinary hospital staff member at UC Davis, encourages parents to give children the opportunity to express their grief through play. "Children typically know how to grieve; they don't let thoughts cloud the process like adults do," she says. "Journaling and artwork help them deal with emotions. We can help them by supporting that process and letting them talk about their pet when they need to."
When talking about the pet's death, it's important to be honest and use proper terminology. Soares-Dabalos says that parents need to understand their child's developmental age to decide how much information to communicate. "Children are concrete thinkers and interpret what we say literally," she says. "It's ok to use age-appropriate medical terms, but avoid 'put to sleep' since we all sleep."
Most importantly, it is critical to acknowledge your child's emotions. Grief is an individual process, and your child may go through various stages at different times – anger, irritability, denial, guilt, acceptance. Whatever they express, it's important to let them know these feelings are valid.
Mourning is the expression of grief, often with others, to facilitate healing. For children, giving them time to mourn and finding a way to honor and memorialize their pet can be powerful steps to healing. Soli Redfield Martin, another hospital staff member who serves as a pet loss grief recovery specialist, suggests having your child focus on positive memories of your pet. "Creating a pet memory box, or a special area in the home where items can be displayed is a great way to remember a beloved pet. Children can collect the collar, leash, favorite toys, paw print and even ashes of their pet in a special box, or somewhere in the home or yard where they have easy access to them. The collected belongings can give your child the chance to honor their memories of time shared with that pet."
Losing a companion animal is never easy, but it can be a powerful learning experience to help a child process other loss in their lives. Soares-Dabalos says that by validating their feelings of anger, hopelessness, and powerlessness, parents can help their children learn emotional regulation for other losses. "They learn that an experience hurts, but they will survive."
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