Children and Grief
Many children will experience death and grief for the first time when they lose a pet. It is important that this loss is handled caringly, thoughtfully and sensitively. It is commonly agreed that being honest is the most important thing. It is not necessary to discuss all details, however some older children respond well to being included in family-pet discussions. Be honest regarding pet death.
Be sensitive, but do not lie. Advise against euphemisms, untruths or half-truths.
Give the child permission to work through their grief. This includes telling teachers about the pet's death and encouraging the child to talk freely even if the owners are distressed by it. The giving of hugs and reassurance is beneficial, as is discussing death, dying and grieving openly and honestly.
Remember that when adults that showing their own grief in front of their child is healthy as well. Hiding grief might make children wonder why the parents don't miss the presence of the pet in the house. In extreme cases this may lead to them wondering if parents would be sad if they died. Grieving and crying in front of a child validates to the child that these emotions are OK to express.
Be creative about ways to help children memorialise their pet.This can include setting up a 'shrine', with photos, incense and candles, planting a tree, or just drawing picture. Some children might like to start a journal of pet memories.
Children under two can sense stress in the house even though they do not know the cause. They need extra comfort and attention during the grieving period. Infants and very young children may not understand the death of a pet, but they are very aware of the tension and change in emotional state of those around them. Parents can reassure kids by hugging and holding them, and keeping the household routine as normal as possible will help.
Toddlers and preschool age:
Children aged 2 to 5 may believe they are invincible. Death to them is seen on TV with resurrections common in cartoons. Often these cartoon characters are animals, which does not help them to understand the finality of death for their own pets. Explaining death without euphemisms will help them better understand it later. Children under seven may need help in understanding that the pet will not wake up or come home.
From school age upwards:
While young school age children have a better grasp on the finality of death, in their minds the world revolves around them. As a result, guilt may play a part more heavily in their grieving processes. For example, if they have had thoughts like “I hate walking Fluffy every day, I wish she was gone”, then Fluffy does die, they may end up believing that they were in fact the cause of their pets death.
Children between the ages of 7 and 12 can understand the permanence of death. They may ask many questions about how and why the pet died. Children over 12 years of age (adolescents) may have a very difficult time recovering from grief and may not be open about how much emotional pain they are experiencing.
Summarized from Belinda Beynon, BMVS