The loss of a pet is often a child’s first experience with death. Understanding the unique ways that children view pets and respond to their passing can help parents to ease the grieving process.
Joshua Russell, an assistant professor of environmental science at Canisius College in Buffalo, who has studied the effects of pet loss in children, explained that for many children, pets are more than just animals. “Many kids describe their pets as siblings or best friends with whom they have strong connections,” he said.
In a study of 12 children ages 6 to 13 who had lost a pet, published in the journal Environmental Education Research, Dr. Russell found that even years after the pet’s death, some children still described the loss as “the worst day of their lives.” He also discovered that children come up with unique ways to rationalize their pet’s passing and that the way a pet dies influences how children grieve.
“Children, in particular, have a distinct sense of existential fairness around whether or not an animal lived until an appropriate age,” Dr. Russell said.
Like adults, children more readily accepted their pet’s death when it was expected in some way. For example, children were less affected when they knew in advance that the animal would have a short life span. They seemed to know that a fish or hamster, for instance, would not live as long as a dog or cat. When an animal was sick, they generally agreed that euthanasia relieved the pet of its suffering. If an animal is terminally ill, parents can help prepare the child by talking about the impending loss, as well as the feelings of sadness it will evoke.
Yet when pets died in tragic and unexpected ways, the loss was harder for the child to accept. “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,” said Abigail Marks, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco who specializes in childhood grief.
Of course, a child’s age and developmental level affect how he or she understands death, and a child’s grief looks very different from an adult’s. Children do not always cry or immediately show emotion. But this does not mean they are not deeply affected by the loss.
– Juli Fraga