How to Help a Child Through the Loss of a Pet

Posted by Krissy Howard
Little girl walking with dog in the forest back to camera

The loss of a pet can be devastating for anyone, especially children, but there are a few recommended ways to help your little one deal with their grief.  

It can be a hard time for anyone, and many children refer to it as "the worst day" of their lives -- the loss of a family pet. While grief is a personal thing that affects everyone differently, there are a few things you can do to be there for your child through the loss of their best friend.

While any loss is hard, not all manners of grieving are created equal, with factors such as the age of the child, and suddenness of death of the pet all playing a large part.

Girls and turtle. Siblings are doing his homework for elementary school.

According to research published by AKC Pet Insurance, preschool-aged children typically cannot comprehend death as a permanent thing, while those in grade school usually have a better understanding of death and will often take the loss harder, sometimes even blaming themselves. Older children cope much like an adult would, eventually accepting the loss in due time, which is different for every individual.

Pets lost to natural circumstances such as old age or illness tend to make for an easier goodbye than those which occur suddenly or unexpectedly.

"When a pet dies suddenly, it highlights the unpredictability of the world. It tells children that the people and animals they love can die without warning," Abigail Marks, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco who specializes in childhood grief, said in an interview with The New York Times.

The red cat sitting on a shoulder at the child

Whatever the circumstances, the loss of a loved one is never easy, but there are a few things any parent or friend can keep in mind to help children grieve in healthy ways, the most important being to allow them to mourn their loss without fear of shame, punishment, or belittling. Dr. Marks encourages parents, or another family member like grandma, to let their kids determine the pace in which they decide to talk about the circumstances and to explain death to help the child cope.

"If they are asking about the details of the pet's death, it's a sign that they want to talk about it," she explained. "They are looking for your comfort."

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Additionally, many have found it helpful to hold a memorial service or ritual for their pet, honoring the important role they played in the family, guiding their children through expressing themselves through art, reading children's books written about the subject, of which there are many, or allowing them to simply witness your own grief. If a child is expressing extreme depression over their loss, professional help and services such as therapy, a child psychologist, or counseling may be of help.

Have you helped a child through the loss of a pet? Did you go through it as a child? Tell us in the comments below. 

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How to Help a Child Through the Loss of a Pet