Death of a Family Dog -- How Do You Help the Children to Cope?

a girl hugging her dogThe death of a family pet, whether expected or not, always creates a sense of loss. The stages of grief are well documented in adults and typically involve denial, sadness, depression, guilt, anger and finally recovery.

With children the effects vary very widely and depend on the level of maturity. Reaction depends upon the child’s ability to accept the concept of death. 

Two to three year olds

At this age there is no understanding of death. Often it is considered a form of sleep. Parents can help by explaining that their pet has died and will not return. This often creates genuine distress, frequently with temporary loss of speech. The child usually thinks the pet has fallen into a deep sleep. It is usually helpful to comfort the child and explain that the pet’s failure to return is not related to anything that has been said or done. Most children of this age will readily accept another pet in replacement since they usually broadly accept that the original pet has gone to sleep and will not coming back.

Four to six year olds

In this age range children have some understanding of death but it is often related to continued existence. Again it may be considered the dog is in a deep sleep or is living underground while continuing to eat, breathe and play. Often because the view of death as temporary - “living underground”- a return is often expected. Children of this age often link the pet’s loss with the fact that they were angry with the pet. It is important to try to dispel this view since the belief can spread to encompass recent death of family members. Another common belief of children of this age is that death is contagious. They can then develop fears that their own death or that of others close to them is imminent. It is important to give a constant assurance that this is not likely. Grief at this age often takes the form of disturbances in bladder and bowel control as well as eating and sleeping disorders. Time should be spent helping the child to gain confidence in order to share feelings and concerns. Brief impromptu discussions are generally more productive than trying to get the whole thing over in one or two prolonged sessions.

a sad young boySeven to nine year olds

At this age children are beginning to realise the finality of death but they seldom regard it in relation to themselves. Some children develop fears about the death of their parents when confronted with the death of a pet, particularly if this is sudden and unexpected. They may become very curious about death and its implications. It is important that parents are ready to respond frankly and honestly to any questions although this can be distressing.

Manifestations of grief vary with this age group. The development of school problems, learning problems and antisocial attentiveness or clinging is commonly seen. Based on the experience of grief reactions to loss of parents or siblings it is likely that these signs may not occur immediately but be delayed for several weeks or even months.

Ten to twelve year olds

Children of this age range are beginning to comprehend death as natural, inevitable and universal. Consequently these children often react to death in a manner similar to adults.

Adolescents

This age group reacts broadly similarly to adults but many adolescents exhibit various forms of denial. Frequently these take the form of a lack of emotional display. It is important to realise that these young people may be experiencing deep and sincere grief without showing any outward manifestations.

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