Kids and pets are like peanut butter and jelly – its hard to imagine one without the other. They can quickly become the best of friends, playing for hours on end. A childs best animal friends seem to know to be extra gentle with him, and they are often endlessly patient – calmly swallowing their pride and allowing themselves to be dressed in dolls clothes, take a bubble bath or just be hauled around on the childs whim. Regardless, the attachments between children and their pets can be very real and
very strong, making it especially difficult when the pet dies. And, while we dont usually like to think about death, it is a part of life. Fortunately, there are several simple ways a parent can help a child understand and work through the grieving process.
According to Robin Hamlisch, a licensed social worker and counselor in Cornell Universitys Office of Student and Academic Services and director of the Cornell Companions program in the College of Veterinary Medicine, “A pet dying is often the first experience a child has with death, so it is important to encourage children to talk about whatever it is they are feeling: sadness, confusion or fear. And respect the childs feelings – all of them – as this is a very sensitive time for them.” It is also important to be honest about what happened to begin with: “Fluffy died because he was really sick.” Ms. Hamlisch explains that the terms “put to sleep” or “went away” can be confusing and may frighten children into thinking that, if they go to sleep, they might not come back, either. Very often, parents are also experiencing their own grief: “Its good for adults to share their feelings, as well,” says Ms. Hamlisch, provided that they are presented in a way thats appropriate for a childs age.
There are several practical ways in which a parent can help children
grieve and express new feelings.
- Memorialization of the pet – Activities or projects that help children realize that they dont have to “forget” their pet, but can rather remember and celebrate the pets life, can be very beneficial. A few examples, according to Ms. Hamlisch, are putting together a collage of pictures that youve taken over the years of the pet, painting a rock with the animals name to put outside under a tree or drawing pictures of the pet.
- Taking time to talk about the pet – Talking with a child about a lost pet allows the child to express feelings and ask questions. Ms. Hamlisch advises adults to be honest about not knowing the answer to a question. The grieving process is intricate and different for everyone, and there is often no perfect answer.
- Seeking professional counseling help – If a child seems preoccupied or has changes in mood or behavior that persist for a long time, Ms. Hamlisch recommends speaking with a professional counselor who specializes in grief work.
Childrens friendships with their pets can add so much richness to their lives and character; helping them work through the grieving process will not only help them understand what happened but will also help them begin to understand how death is a part of life. And, if they learn to cope appropriately, they will begin to see that the grieving process can be an opportunity to celebrate the love and friendship they shared with a very special individual.