Kids can experience psychological distress for up to three years after losing a pet. Animal Chaplain Sarah Bowen, author of Sacred Sendoffs, has six tips to help you companion your kids, grandkids, or friends of any age through animal loss.
An increasing body of research attests to the pain of losing an animal we love. With over 85 million families in the U.S. now including a “pet,” it’s no surprise that animal grief is a widespread occurrence. Every day, kids are losing beloved dogs and cats.
These heartbreaking moments become our first losses. And so, they determine how we will deal with grief for the rest of our lives. If kids learn to stuff their emotions or are rushed too quickly to “get closure,” they may create unhealthy patterns that will endure later in life.
Studies have shown that pet loss can lead to a loss of motivation as well as increased stress, anxiety, worry, and depression. Kids can have changes in their eating habits and trouble sleeping. They may retreat from socialization and withdraw into solitude. This is natural and normal. But, it can also be problematic. For example, one study suggests that children can experience psychological distress for up to three years after losing a pet. So, it’s important to help kids learn coping skills.
Here are the five tips to help children recover from pet loss:
- Put the oxygen mask on yourself first. Acknowledge and care for your own emotions, too. Regardless of our age, the death of a companion animal can bring sadness, grief, or guilt, and disruptions such as trouble sleeping. Consult an animal chaplain, therapist, clergy member, or close friend and share your feelings. This way, you can come from a place of groundedness when helping your child.
- Be truthful. While it may be tempting to fall back on stories about the “rainbow bridge,” the truth is, we don’t know what happens after death for animals or humans. And the idea of pets just waiting at a bridge for decades can disturb some children. Instead, help kids embrace unknowingness and the mysteries of life. Teach them that “not knowing” does not need to be scary. Ask them what they think might have happened to Fido or Fluffy after their breath left their body. Make time to hear your child’s thoughts―especially what
they think happened. It can also be helpful to ensure young children that death is a natural process, not the result of the pet being “bad.”
- Let kids know that other animals grieve, too. Take time to explore these ideas together. Complex social behavior concerning death has been seen among elephants, dolphins, whales, and chimpanzees. Death practices have also been observed among gorillas, baboons, macaques, lemurs, geladas, giraffes, western scrub jays, buffalo, bears, horses, chickens, and turtles. Notably, chimps, elephants, and magpies engage in behavior that suggests memorialization. Elephants visit their family members’ bones and seem concerned about deaths beyond their species. They have covered other species under foliage, including rhinos, lions, and even a couple of sleeping humans!
- Create a ritual to mark the loss. Memorials need not be complicated. Here’s one thought-starter: Paint rocks and place them in a small circle somewhere in your yard to create a grief garden. Add pots of flowers and a small bench or weather-proof pillow for sitting. Spend time in this space with your child and share your favorite memories about the animal. Then encourage your child to hang out in this garden whenever they want to remember their pet.
- Transform grief through ongoing acts of love. It’s often said that grief is love with nowhere to go. Encourage more hugging in your household. Spend time outside with your child talking to songbirds, observing squirrels, or marveling at the wonders of nature. Donate extra pet food to a homeless pet shelter. Volunteer at a farmed animal sanctuary. Plant a butterfly garden.
- Don’t rush. Above all, avoid rushing kids to “get over it” quickly. Give them time to adjust to life without their beloved animal companion. If you notice they have ongoing trouble with daily functioning, your child may benefit from seeing a grief professional. Just make sure it is someone who supports animal issues and won’t quip, “Well, it was just a dog!”
It’s undeniable. Pet loss hurts. And while grief can be tough on both kids and parents, it also provides a silver lining. Helping kids learn to deal with loss, disappointment, sadness, and grief can set them up for healthy responses to the other unwanted surprises that life may toss their way—including the day when eventually they may lose you.
For more info on surviving animal loss, read Sacred Sendoffs: An Animal Chaplain’s Advice for Surviving Animal Loss, Making Life Meaningful, and Healing the Planet, or check out our DIY Ritual Kits for Animal Loss.