Support for Children
Death and loss are all part of life, but no parent wants to see their child in pain and many will go to great lengths to protect and shield their child. Death is a life experience and how a parent handles the death of the family pet can be a valuable life lesson for the child as they grow and develop into adulthood.
It is a personal choice for the parent and no one knows the child better than their parent whose beliefs and values will play a part in their decision as to how much their child should be told about death and dying. The age and development of a child should be taken into consideration as to how they may react and feel about pet bereavement.
Guiding a child through bereavement every step of the way is crucial to allow them to process what is happening, accept that grieving is part of the process and also that life does go on.
If the pet carer has children in their family or are concerned how a child that they know will cope with pet bereavement the following may help, as children suffering from pet bereavement will not necessarily grieve in the same way an adult does. They may not be adept at expressing their feelings verbally the way an adult can, therefore understanding how a child may react is important in supporting them through their grief. Some children can be very resilient and cope far better than we give them credit for.
Should children be present during euthanasia?
Generally speaking children under the age of 7 may not appreciate that death is permanent and despite being curious and asking a lot of questions about what happened, they may not fully comprehend what is happening. From approximately 8yrs onwards a child may realise that death is a permanent state and as death is something we cannot avoid in life, teaching a child about death in a sensitive and inclusive manner can in fact help them learn coping strategies for life. There is nothing scary about euthanasia and allows the child to experience the passing of their pet, in a dignified and peaceful way, giving them the chance to say goodbye.
Explaining why the decision has been made to euthanise the pet and explaining the procedure to the child in a manner they will understand without the use of jargon will help. It is also important to guide the child afterwards with regard to their feelings and find ways to memorialise their pet.
The pet carer may wish to ask their vets opinion about their child being present during euthanasia, although ultimately it should be the parent’s decision.
The following is a guide by age of the child as to how they may respond to the death of a pet -
Infants – 2yrs
Infants and very young children are unlikely to understand the death of a pet, but they are very susceptible to any change in their routine, as well as to the emotional state or tension from those around them, especially from their parents. Maintaining a young child’s usual routine and giving extra hugs is important at a time of bereavement. They may miss the pet being around, but other than that, they will forget very quickly.
2 -7 years
Generally speaking, children under seven years of age do not understand that death is a permanent state. Children of this age take notice of all animals in their immediate environment, are curious and ask a lot of questions about them. Children of this age are very quick to understand when something is wrong, so being patient with them, and taking the time to explain that a pet is ill or dying, are the first steps in preparing them for the death of a pet. They will ask questions and may ask the same questions many times over, as they try to work out and comprehend the situation. Allowing a child to be part of what is happening helps to teach them that they are an important part of the family unit. Children of this age may want to know intricate details of every aspect of the pet’s death, however, it is not necessary to give specific details.
By this stage in a child’s development they may understand that death is permanent, or will understand when it is explained to them. Like younger children, they may ask several questions about how and why the pet is dying, or has died. Involving them with the aftercare arrangements for the pet will help make them feel that their opinion is respected.
This age group is already going through a confusing time in their lives. With so many changes happening to them physically and mentally, the death of a pet only adds to an already difficult time. They will be torn between trying to behave as they think an ‘adult’ should, whilst inwardly they may be suffering greatly. They will be aware of how they think their peers will react if they show their true emotions, and will often put on an act, as if they are not affected in any way by the loss of their pet. These combined factors can lead them to be withdrawn and suffer mood swings, as they try to come to terms with their feelings and their loss.
Children of all ages are not always good at expressing their feelings in words, which can lead to them displaying unusual behaviour, or lead to displays of anger and temper tantrums. Should a child of any age witness a traumatic end to their pets life eg: a road traffic accident, professionally help should be sought. Speak in the first instance to your own GP.
They may regress in their behaviour by reverting to ‘comforting’ ways; e.g. thumb-sucking, biting their nails, or may even start to wet the bed. Children will often feel responsible for the death of their pet and need to be reassured that there was nothing they could have done differently. Remember that children are prone to ‘bargaining’ at this time and will feel helpless, as well as responsible.
Explaining to children about the work the vet has done to help their pet is important, especially with regard to euthanasia, as a child may misinterpret the actions of the vet, which can leave the child with the wrong impression of what a vet actually does. You may want to enlist the help of their school teacher or the leader of any social groups they attend, by telling them what has happened, so that they can keep an eye on the child and step in to support them if necessary.
Involving children in the aftercare and memorial arrangements will make them feel valued, and help them cope with the situation. A welcome distraction for them could be writing a letter or poem to their pet. This can then be placed with the pet, prior to burial or cremation.
Offering to get another pet for a child immediately isn’t usually a good idea, as this teaches the child that pets are easily replaced. Allow the child to heal before suggesting another pet is introduced to the family.
Support for the Elderly
Losing a pet when a pet carer is older can be more complex than first thought. A pet offers comfort, security and structure to their lives and gives a sense of being needed. Their pet may be the only ‘family’ or contact they have with the outside world and their entire life may revolve around their pet.
They may have relied on their pet, not only for companionship and comfort, but also for security, exercise and social contact. If finances played a part in their decision to euthanise their pet e.g. if they were unable to afford ongoing veterinary care, this can cause additional anxiety and stress, and intensify feelings of guilt.
Being able to get another pet is often out of the question for an elderly person for several reasons: their own health - they may not be able to cope with a puppy or young pet, they may be concerned that their pet will outlive them and have no one to care for it or they simply cannot afford one.
Perhaps they may wish to consider fostering or adopting an older pet. Those who are unable to take on a dog or cat, owing to their own health problems, may wish to consider getting a pet that does not require the same degree of physical care, e.g. a budgie, which is generally easier to care for but will also give much needed companionship. If the pet carer is afraid that they may die before their pet, they may wish to add a clause to their Will, specifying a particular animal charity that will find a good home for their pet, and that has policies in place whereby they will not euthanise a healthy pet no matter what age the pet is.
If it is an enforced separation due to ill health or if the pet carer is placed in a residential care home and cannot take their pet with them, it may be worth checking to see if the care facility allows pets to visit or if they have ‘Therapet’ registered pets to visit.
Dawn Murray, the founder of Living with Pet Bereavement, will have her new book published in March 2023 - 'A Guide to Pet Bereavement Counselling' will be a must for anyone looking to learn more about how to become a Pet Bereavement Counsellor or those looking to support bereaved pet carers either in a professional or informal setting. To pre-order a copy or to find out more please email email@example.com