Coping With The Death Of A Pet

Helping children deal with the death of a pet by understanding some of the emotions or stages of grief they may experience and how to respond to their sorrow.

The death of a family pet can be a very emotional and difficult experience for the best of us, without the thought of how other family members are enduring the loss. However, children will be particularly vulnerable at such a time and may be in need of some extra consolation and understanding.

Most parents will probably have the added concern of how precisely to tell their children about the death of their pet and may attempt to protect them from the grief and pain of loss. Nonetheless, the majority of children tend to deal with and accept their animal's death quite quickly and with a fair amount of ease and peace. Perhaps the primary rule of thumb to follow is simply to use honest and simple explanations. It is important not only to share your personal beliefs in regards to death with children, but also to share your own feelings. Allow your children to know how the loss of your beloved pet affected you, so that they may in turn feel comfortable explaining their own grief or sorrow to you. Above all, remember that the death of your pet can actually become a healthy and an important learning experience for your children. Death is an unavoidable and natural part of life and learning to survive and accept the emotions that accompany a loss is a significant and lifelong coping skill.

Just as each child is different in appearance and in personality, so will each child express different feelings and emotions in regards to the death of their family pet. Regardless of whether they be filled with grief, sadness, anger, fear, denial, or all of the above, most are normal and should be individually acknowledged. Offering comfort, support, recognition and a listening ear are essential. Answer all of your children's questions that are related to your pet's death and include your children in any memorial plans that you may have for your pet. It is also important to explain the permanency of death to your children, so there is no doubt in their mind that their pet is now gone. If necessary, or should you feel uncomfortable discussing this experience with your children, be sure to seek out a grief or school counselor who will be willing to speak to your children about death. It is also wise to let their childcare worker or teacher know about the death of the family pet so they may better understand your children's emotions.

There are certain terms that may be worth avoiding when discussing the loss of an animal with children. One is the term "put to sleep," and this is because children tend to misinterpret this phrase and some may actually develop a fear of sleep or bedtime. Others may falsely believe that their pet will one day wake up again and come back to life. Secondly, avoid telling children that God has taken their pet. Some children may begin to regard God in a negative way, believing He is to blame for their pet's death. It is best to use honest and direct explanations, emphasizing that death is a natural part of life.

Some of the emotions that grieving children (and adults) may experience include:

1. Denial "" Disbelief that the death really occurred and a belief that the pet's death was a mistake or that the pet will come back to life shortly. Some children may act as though nothing happened.

2. Anger "" Recognition that the pet has really died and is not coming back, accompanied by feelings of anger, resentment, rage, and even aggression. Children may blame their parents or God for taking their beloved pet away. They may act out their angry emotions through play, or may become withdrawn and have trouble eating and/or sleeping. Be sure to talk through these emotions with your children and validate their feelings.

3. Bargaining "" Children may believe that if they behave well their pet will return to life again or that they may delay the death. They may question if there is anything they could have done to have kept their pet alive. Ensure them that they are in no way responsible for their pet's death.

4. Depression "" A period of mourning and grief. Children may be sad, reserved, quiet, and not all that interested in playing. Once again validate their feelings and often a small memorial service or simply talking about your pet's life may be beneficial in putting closure on their grief.

5. Acceptance "" The sadness related to the death of their pet has subsided and children are fairly at peace with the experience. Not every child gets to this point unfortunately, but through an understanding and compassionate parent, teacher, or friend it is very possible. Most children are very resilient.

Note, that not every child will experience the above stages of grief, nor will they all experience them in the above order. Some children may feel happy and at peace one day, while troubled and depressed the next. Age is also a factor that may influence their emotions. Preschool children typically do not have a concrete understanding of death, and thus may be particularly likely to believe that their pet is only sleeping or that they have said or done something that allowed for their pet to be taken away. Younger children may also regress in terms of speech and other general activities if they are disturbed about their pet's death. Others may not be bothered at all and this is also normal. School-age children tend to have a more realistic concept of death, but they may fear that it is somehow contagious or transmissible, so they will need to be made aware of the fact that death is very individual. Grief and distress may be observed in their eating and sleeping habits. Talking to them about the experience on severaldifferent occasions is important and keeping routines as normal as possible is key. Older children usually realize that death is non-transmissible, but they still may have very strong feelings of grief and sorrow. This may be expressed through nightmares or depression. Observe their behavior and allow yourself to be a role model for them in regards to how to handle traumatic feelings and stressful events.

If you notice that your children are severely disturbed by the death of their pet, have become aggressive, unwilling to play or eat, or are having serious sleep disturbances, please seek professional advice. Here are some important points to remember when dealing with or explaining the death of a family pet to your children:

- be honest (use the term "ňúdeath' and avoid metaphors)

- give simple explanations

- explain the permanency of death

- ensure that no one is to blame and that death is individualistic in nature

- be a good listener

- be a compassionate role model

- include children in memorial plans

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