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Helping Children Cope with the Loss of a Pet

 by jaime on 28 May 2014 |
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When people make the decision to bring a dog or cat into their lives, they are welcoming that new pet as a member of the family. Unlike our family members though, dogs and cats do not have long lifespans. The impact pets can have the family dynamic is unmistakable. For adults, a pet can be a critical companion that is always there with a wet tongue and wagging tail at the end of the day.

  

For children, a dog or cat is a playmate and partner in crime. When the time comes that a pet passes away, the manner in which people grieve is going to differ. While adults have perhaps dealt with death in the past, many children may have their first experience with death when the family pet dies. So how can adults help children cope with the loss of a pet?

  

Prepare their minds

Many older pets eventually leave their families through the process of euthanasia. Often referred to as "putting an animal to sleep," this concept can be very difficult for children to understand. As an adult it is easy to sympathize with the needs of an aging animal whose daily life is so hard that euthanasia is the best path.

  

For children however, coping with the concept of euthanasia is different. Parents should take the step of preparing their children for what will happen in the process of euthanasia. This doesn't mean sharing with them the details of the process, but rather using age-appropriate language to express the finality of euthanasia.

  

Be considerate of their emotions and age level, but make sure to let them know that this step is final. Their beloved pet won't wake up or return later, and unless that is clear it can create confusion in children.

  

Watch for signs of grief

Once children have been prepared for the loss of their pet and have seen their pet for the final time, it is important to be aware of potential signs of grief. Just because the process was explained to them doesn't mean that they will easily process the loss and handle the grief. In the short term, depressed moods, acting out, or general gloominess are to expected.

  

What parents really need to watch for are long term signs of grief. Long term grief will differ based upon a child's age and their level of attachment to a pet, but some of the signs to watch for include:
 

·         No longer interested in usual activities

·         Withdrawn from friends and family

·         Regression - particularly in relation to potty-training and bed wetting

·         Nightmares 

·         Fear of sleep 

·         Extra fixation on death 

  

Parents that notice these signs in their children should act quickly to help their kids cope in a healthier manner. School psychologists, ministers, or counselors are all excellent sources of assistance in helping children develop better coping mechanisms.

  

With time comes healing

The biggest mistake adults can make is belittling the connection a child had with a pet. Help them remember their lost pet fondly and reinforce the value of the human-animal bond they shared together while the pet was a member of the family. Additionally, be careful about getting new pets too soon.

  

Introducing a new pet into the family may leave the child feeling like their former pet is being replaced. This can lead to disinterest or even maltreatment of the new pet. Do not rush into any decision regarding a new pet until children have had time to heal first. When the time comes, adults should include children in the decision with the clear understanding that this new pet is not a replacement.

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