Diana (age 5) and Wylie (age 8 months)…special relationships begin very early in life.
“Myths about loss and grief exist in our culture, and we, as a society, abide by these myths. Some of the most damaging myths involve children. For example, many people believe that children are resilient during times of crisis and loss and that they do not grieve with the same intensity as adults. Because of this myth, people also believe that pets’ deaths are fairly trivial losses for children.” (Lagoni, et al).
Because of these ill-conceived notions, many children do not get the attention and support needed during the loss of a pet. In an attempt to make children quickly recover, parents will often provide quick replacement of pets, not allowing them to appropriately understand or grieve. With each stage of growth and development comes a different level of understanding and coping with death and grief. The following are age-related recommendations from “The Human-Animal Bond and Grief” (see reference below).
Infants (Birth through 1 Year of Age): Babies feel the escalated levels of stress that arise in families, but they are not aware of the cause of tension. They respond to high stress levels through crying, whining, clinging, withdrawing or regressing. Talking to babies about pet loss is obviously not comprehended at this age. Babies are best reassured by hugs, cuddling, and special time devoted to them. Family routines should be kept as normal as possible.
Toddlers and Preschoolers (2 through 4 Years of Age). At this age, children still do not understand that death is permanent and universal. Toddlers and preschoolers are ready and willing to talk about death and are more relaxed and curious about it then any other age group. Young children may or may not cry about their losses initially and their symptoms of grief will come and go with varying degrees of intensity. They may express their confusion, fear, and sadness about death through play, open displays of emotion or through their developing lingual skills. They may also express them by “acting out”. Acting out is a way that children release feelings of pain, distress, and anxiety when they lack other, more positive vehicles for expression. Toddlers and preschoolers may also display symptoms of separation anxiety, developing clinging behaviors or withdrawing from normal friends and activities. Psychosomatic complaints like stomach aches, sore throats, and chronic fatigue can also signal the presence of grief that has been suppressed. Changes in children's personalities, daily habits, social lives, and behaviors can be signs of grief that need more positive vehicles for expression. Young children may explore death through play. They might draw pictures, bury stuffed animals in their sandboxes, or plan funerals for their dolls. Although these activities may seem alarming and morbid to adults, they are normal, healthy responses and should be encouraged. Children deal with new information and current issues through experimentation. Their activities do not, in most cases, require adult intervention.
Early School-Aged Children (5 through 8 Years of Age) This age group is less willing to talk about death. They often personify death and think of it as The Grim Reaper, The Dark Angel, or as a monster-like form. Because they imagine death in concrete ways, they also think that they can hide from it or avoid it. This belief can cause them to feel angry at someone who dies. They do not understand why their loved one did not just run away or hide when death came to get them. Early school-aged children are in the “magical thinking” phase of cognitive development. They perceive that the world is under their control. With viewing TV and movie characters “killed” only to reappear next week in a different program or movie, death to them appears reversible. Grief is often delayed due to peer pressure, emotional inhibitions, or even due to busy schedules. It may surface weeks and even months after a loss. Children may need to have the facts honestly restated and may need to be reassured that they are not responsible for what happed to their pets. Generally, around the age of 8 years, children realize that death is permanent and universal. This time can be troubling for them as they begin to ponder the mortality of those they love. It is important for these children to have opportunities to talk about their losses and to ask questions about death.
Late School-Aged Children (9 through 12 Years of Age). Most older school-aged children know that death is irreversible and that it eventually happens to everyone. They are capable of sustaining intense periods of grief and can become preoccupied with a loss, particularly if they have had feelings of abandonment or rejection previously. For older school-age children, grief for a pet may be connected to another, equally disturbing death and can trigger memories of that loss. Like younger children, older school aged children may ask some shocking questions about death. It is most helpful to given them honest answers and suggestions for active resolutions. Suggestions may include viewing their pet’s bodies or participating in goodbye or memorial ceremonies. As with younger children, opportunities for heart-to-heart talks or questions-and-answer times are usually helpful.
Adolescents (13 through 17 Years of Age) Adolescents are self-conscious and hyperemotional. Their feelings and thought processes are confusing and often contradictory. They may wish to be treated like adults one day and like younger children on the next. They will be devastated by their pets’ deaths one day and will say it’s “no big deal” the next. Parents and veterinarians must be cautious not to overburden teenagers during the experience of pet loss. Adults must also be careful not to engage teenagers’ rebelliousness by insisting they grieve in certain ways or within certain time frames. They need to be offered time to talk and ask questions about their losses.
Diana (age 20) and Wylie (age 15)
Young Adults (18 through 21 Years of Age) When a young adult experiences pet loss, it is often due to the death of a childhood pet. When a childhood pet dies, an important part of a young adult’s childhood also dies. Thus, the deaths of childhood pets often represent a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood because they sever the last link to a simpler, more innocent time. For young adults who had strong bonds with their pets, their pets’ deaths truly represent the “end of an era”. Another common issue for young adults is the guild that they may feel for “abandoning” their pets when they home for college, work, or to get married. Guilt is not easily erased, but young adults benefit from and appreciate words of comfort from sincere adults. Adults should verbally acknowledge the symbolic connections that exist between pets and young adults’ childhoods. Like younger children, young adults should be reassured and provided with opportunities to discuss and resolve their feelings of grief and guilt.
FOR CHILDREN OF ALL AGES: Talk honestly to children about their pet’s illnesses, injuries, treatments and death. Children of all ages can be included in decisions, euthanasias, and goodbye rituals and ceremonies. With adequate preparation, most children who are old enough to think and speak for themselves can choose whether to be present at euthanasia. Children, like adults, respond well to straightforward explanations and concrete words. Using words and phrases like “died,” “dead,” and “helped to die” may seem harsh, but they help children clearly understand and accept the reality of their pets’ deaths. Using euphemisms like “put to sleep” or “went away” should be avoided. Because children are “put to sleep” every night, these words could cause them to fear that they may also die in their sleep. From Lagoni, Butler, and Hetts: The Human-Animal Bond and Grief, 1994 W.B. Saunders Company, pp. 345-370.