When a Child’s Pet Dies.

May 26, 2017 10:27 pm Published by

When A Child’s Pet Dies

Children can fall deeply, deeply in love with their pets. We all can. But, for children, the bond can be especially deep. Children don’t fully realise that their pet does not think like another human – which makes the unconditional love and trust bestowed by pets particularly special for a child. Sadly, children may also be unaware of the fact that, no matter how much we love them, and how well we care for and protect them, their pet simply won’t live as long as a person. When their beloved pet dies, a child is confronted with a kind of raw grief that they may never have experienced before, as well as a sense of shock. Many children experience bereavement for the first time with the death of a pet – and it can have quite an impact.

So what can we, as caregivers, do to help a child through this first, devastating grief?

  • Don’t Minimise Their Emotion. Whether the deceased animal was a dog, a horse, a gerbil, or a snail, the level of grief can still be huge. Saying things like “It was only a hamster!” is not only unhelpful, it delegitimises the child’s very real emotions.

  • Help Them To Understand. None of us really ‘understand’ death. But children have a more limited comprehension of it than most. The ‘death’ conversation is a biggie, and one best left to primary caregivers. However, a nanny can help by answering questions on the subject. You can reassure that death isn’t contagious, that it wasn’t their fault, and (gently), that, no, the pet isn’t going to wake up. It’s probably best to liase with the parents on how you’re going to respond to queries on this subject – mixed messages  are just what the child does not need when coming face to face with death for the first time.

  • Don’t Judge. Kids whose pets die are just getting to grips with a very sad and complicated fundamental of existence. They often respond in ways which seem strange to us. For example, they may ask endless questions about what’s happening to the body, or the specifics of illness, and other things which may seem morbid. Alternatively, they may sob relentlessly, or display anger, or other troubling ‘symptoms’. Don’t judge them for responding in this manner. They’re just trying to understand and deal with something that not even grown adults can ‘cope’ with.

  • Encourage Them To Name Their Emotions. Bereavement, even of a pet, has plunged more than one child into serious depression. Not only are they struggling with the realities of losing an adored family member, they’re also feeling emotions on a scale which they aren’t prepared for. Depression, anxiety, existential angst – all of these come into play, and the effect on mental health can be serious. Encouraging children to name what they’re feeling helps them to understand – and thus to work through – their feelings. While words like ‘existential’ may be a bit too big at this stage, ‘sad’, ‘lonely’, ‘angry’, ‘confused’ and so on can be useful.

  • Let Them Express Their Emotions. ‘Shutting down’ displays of emotion with phrases like ‘Be a big boy/girl and stop crying’ etc can set a child up for deeply problematic relationships with their own emotions later in life. If a display of emotion is destructive or otherwise damaging, help them to express that emotion in a more productive manner. Conversely, if a child is not expressing anything at all (so far as you can tell), do not force them into emotional displays. More introverted children may prefer to do their crying in private, and dislike the overt smothering of sympathy that public emotional display engenders. This, too, is ok. Let the children express their emotions in ways which – so far as is possible – are natural to them.

  • Be Honest. Euphemisms like ‘went to sleep’ are unhelpful when explaining death. Be honest about what has happened. Wrapping a hard truth up in metaphors and so on confuses the matter, and often prolongs the incomprehension and pain of a child’s grieving process. So, be kind, be sympathetic, and be supportive – but be honest. Yes, the truth will hurt. But what a child sees as ‘lies’ and confusion hurt more, in the long run.

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This post was written by Gemma Hunt