Grief support: How to help your child with death of a pet

Grief support in the face of a pet death helps reassure your child as you navigate the topic.

AP Photo/Kathy Willens
Grief support helps reassure kids after a pet death. Here, 2-year-old Leo (l.) and baby brother Andre watch with their mom Carrie Dirks Amodeo as veterinarian Elisabetta Coletti makes a house call to see Scrappy Daphne the cat – who is completly fine. She was just getting her toenails clipped Aug. 9, 2009.

The death of a pet can be a shock for young children who do not yet understand the concept of permanence the way older children or adults do.

There are things you can do to help guide your child, gently and lovingly through sadness, confusion and stress that accompany such an event.

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Tactile toddlers in particular will seek out extra cuddles and hugs, needing to be held for reassurance. The trick is to let them come to you and be aware that they may fluctuate between pushing you away to pulling you close. This physical expression is directly linked to their confusion about the situation. Sometimes a young child can transfer their confusion onto younger children or another pet, so make sure you at clear about what is and isn’t acceptable behavior.

Auditory children tend to need lots of explanations, some which can be difficult to give. Divert this process by sharing stories of when you lost your pet and how you felt. If the mood gets a bit dreary, talk about all the fun times you all had and bring the conversation into the positive. Another trait auditory children have is to tell everybody everything, so don’t be surprised if they cheerfully announce to the grocer or school teacher in detail that their pet had died. This is not them being insensitive, but rather a way of accepting difficult-to-digest information through repetition.

Most people clean out the cage and area the pet previously held, but for a visual child this can be disturbing. If possible try to keep things visually the same, at least for a short time and when change is necessary, do your best to do it slowly or replace the space where the cage was with something else to “fill in” the area. It isn’t unusual for a visual child to become a little possessive of other things in their life; being particular about the order or visual display of food, clothes or personal items. This is simply about trying to gain control in their environment at a time where they are feeling loss.

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Your taste-and-smell child may be more clingy and emotional during the mourning period. Tears over the simplest of things and becoming quiet or difficult to manage may be noticeable as they try to get a hold on their emotions.

By guiding your child with kindness, assurance, and understanding through the difficult event of the loss of a pet, you will be teaching them important skills necessary for being able to cope with challenges later in life.

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