WHEN A PET DIES
For most kids, pets are more than just animals their families own — they're members of the family and the best of friends.
Unfortunately, the joy of owning a pet goes hand-in-hand with the heartbreak of losing one, whether because of old age, illness, or an accident.
And that can be very difficult. After all, family pets often are the first to greet kids in the morning and after school. Your pet may be the one your child looks to for comfort and companionship when ill or feeling unpopular or upset.
While it's impossible to shelter kids from the loss of a pet, you can help them cope with it. And because a pet's death might be their first time losing a loved one, the grieving process can help kids learn how to cope with other losses throughout life.
SHARING THE NEWS AND THE GRIEF
One of the most difficult parts about losing a pet may be breaking the bad news to kids. Try to do so one-on-one in a place where they feel safe and comfortable and not easily distracted.
As you would with any tough issue, try to gauge how much information kids need to hear based on their age, maturity level, and life experience.
If your pet is very old or has a lingering illness, consider talking to kids before the death occurs. If you have to euthanize your pet, you may want to explain that:
- the veterinarians have done everything that they can
- your pet would never get better
- this is the kindest way to take the pet's pain away
- the pet will die peacefully, without feeling hurt or scared
Again, a child's age, maturity level, and questions will help determine whether to offer a clear and simple explanation for what's going to happen. If so, it's OK to use words like "death" and "dying" or to say something like "The veterinarian will give our pet a shot that first puts it to sleep and then stops the heart from beating." Many kids want a chance to say goodbye beforehand, and some may be old enough or emotionally mature enough to be there to comfort the pet during the process.
If you do have to euthanize your pet, be careful about saying the animal went "to sleep" or "got put to sleep." Young kids tend to interpret events literally, so this can conjure up scary misconceptions about sleep or surgery and anesthesia.
If the pet's death is more sudden, calmly explain what has happened. Be brief, and let your child's questions guide how much information you provide.
STICKING TO THE TRUTH
Avoid trying to gloss over the event with a lie. Telling a child that "Buster ran away" or "Max went on a trip" is not a good idea. It probably won't alleviate the sadness about losing the pet, and if the truth does come out, your child will probably be angry that you lied.
If asked what happens to the pet after it dies, draw on your own understanding of death, including, if relevant, the viewpoint of your faith. And since none of us knows fully, an honest "I don't know" certainly can be an appropriate answer — it's OK to tell kids that death is a mystery.
HELPING YOUR CHILD COPE
Like anyone dealing with a loss, kids usually feel a variety of emotions besides sadness after the death of a pet. They might experience loneliness, anger if the pet was euthanized, frustration that the pet couldn't get better, or guilt about times that they were mean to or didn't care for the pet as promised.
Help kids understand that it's natural to feel all of those emotions, that it's OK to not want to talk about them at first, and that you're there when they are ready to talk.
Don't feel compelled to hide your own sadness about losing a pet. Showing how you feel and talking about it openly sets an example for kids. You show that it's OK to feel sad when you lose a loved one, to talk about your feelings, and to cry when you feel sad. And it's comforting to kids to know that they're not alone in feeling sad. Share stories about the pets you had — and lost — when you were young and how difficult it was to say goodbye.
After the shock of the news has faded, it's important to help your child heal and move on.
It can help kids to find special ways to remember a pet. You might have a ceremony to bury your pet or just share memories of fun times you had together. Write a prayer together or offer thoughts on what the pet meant to each family member. Share stories of your pet's funny moments or escapades. Offer lots of loving hugs. You could do a project, too, like making a scrapbook.
Keep in mind that grieving over the loss of a pet, particularly for a child, is similar to grieving over a person. For kids, losing a pet who offered love and companionship can be much more difficult than losing a distant relative. You might have to explain that to friends, family members, or others who don't own pets or don't understand that.
Perhaps most important, talk about your pet, often and with love. Let your child know that while the pain will eventually go away, the happy memories of the pet will always remain. When the time is right, you might consider adopting a new pet — not as a replacement, but as a way to welcome another animal friend into your family.
Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: September 2013
RAINBOW BRIDGE - POEM
||Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.
|All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together....
DEALING WITH A GRANDPARENT DEATH
Many times a grandparent death is a child's first real brush with mortality. Dealing with loss can be difficult, but at the same time a child can grow in maturity and understanding through this experience. Every child dealing with death needs the support of understanding adults. Parents, of course, have the primary role, but a grandparent can help a child understand the death of one of his or her other grandparents. Preschool and schoolage children will need the most help, and the following suggestions may help:
Mother and child with flowers - Photo © the mother image | Image Bank | Getty Images
- Answer a child’s questions, but keep your answers brief and simple.
- Do not feel that you must provide all the answers.
- Allow the child to grieve, but understand that for some children, real grief will be delayed.
- Listen to what the child says and how he or she says it.
- Don’t confuse young ones by using euphemisms for death such as rest or sleep.
- Reassure the child that death is not a form of punishment but is a part of life.
- Be sure that the child does not feel at fault.
- Be patient and consistent with answers if a child asks the same questions over and over.
- Help the child understand that the deceased is not going to “come back.”
- Be careful about associating death with sickness because the child may become very fearful about his or her own sicknesses.
- Be careful about saying that someone died because he or she was old. The child may become fearful about losing other “old” people and may have distorted ideas of age.
FUNERALS AND OTHER SERVICES
Children need to be with their families during the grief process, but funerals can be overwhelming for young children. Sometimes attending a wake or visitation can be an acceptable substitute for attending the actual funeral. If a child is going to attend a service, go over what will happen so that he or she will be prepared. If the child is going to attend a visitation or service with an open casket, let the child decide whether he or she wants to view the body. If so, arrange for it to be in the company of a calm adult. Prepare the child for the appearance of the body, saying that because the body is no longer working, it does not look the same. Allowing a child to place a picture or letter in the casket can be comforting. Prepare the child for the fact that some people at the service will be crying, but others may be laughing and talking, and that is their way of remembering the deceased.
PARENTS: HELPING CHILDREN COME TO TERMS WITH GRIEF: THE DEATH OF A SIBLING
Talking to Children About Death
You should try to inform the other children of the child's death as soon as possible after it happens. It is important that you do this yourself and that you let your children know right away that nothing is so scary or painful that you cannot talk about it together.
Use simple, straightforward language, and try to avoid euphemisms such as "passed away", "asleep", "lost", or "gone". If your children are too young to know what the word "dead" means, help them to understand by using images drawn from the world they are familiar with - fading flowers, a dead animal seen in the road or yard, the death of a family pet.
Remind them that being alive means breathing, talking, walking, eating, etc., and tell them that being dead means that all of these things stop. Do not compare death to sleeping, since this may lead to sleep disturbances.
It is also best to avoid linking death too closely with illness. Doing so may cause children to panic the next time a family member catches a cold. Reassure children that they are well and be aware that the first time they are sick following the death may be especially stressful for them.
Children may not conceive of death or express their feelings about it in the same way that adults do, but this does not mean that they are incapable of understanding it on their own level and coping with it. Death has to do with change and with loss.
Children are familiar with change. With each passing month their entire universe undergoes enormous changes - they outgrow their wardrobes, see the world from higher and higher vantage points, develop new cognitive and emotional capabilities before our eyes.
Children also know about loss. The disappearance of a favorite toy, leaving behind an old neighborhood and friends to move to a new home, the arrival of a living brother or sister, the end of a vacation or even the end of a movie may provoke emotions comparable in their intensity to the mourning which follows a real death.
Answering Children's Questions
Children need to know that their questions are valid and welcome. The questions may not necessarily come all at once. Instead they will reflect a child's individual progress in understanding and assimilating a powerful experience.
Encouraging your children to ask questions can do much to reduce their anxiety. Many children will ask what will happen to the body of the infant. In simple terms, explain the necessity of burial, cremation, etc., because of decomposition.
If you are planning a funeral, let children know what to expect and include them in deciding how they will participate.
Being left out of the family rituals surrounding death is not helpful to children and may, in fact, leave them feeling even more confused by the death. Under no circumstances should they be forced to attend or to do anything they don't feel comfortable doing.
Children will also want to know why the death occurred. Again, simple, honest statements will be the most helpful. If the reasons are unclear, it is all right to say you don't know. If you believe in a hereafter, you will of course want to share this belief with your children.
It is best, however, to be cautious about using statements such as "God took the baby to heaven" or "God loved the baby more than we did." Explanations of this type tend to identify God as the agent of death, which can be a particular problem for children between the ages of 6 and 9, since they often think of death as a person anyway.
Such statements can also cause resentment against God or a conflict in children's minds about what it means to be "loved by God."
It is important to stress that no family member could have caused or prevented the death by their actions or thoughts. This is especially crucial if the pregnancy was unplanned, or if any family member had doubts about wanting the baby.
Young children believe that wishes are powerful, and may decide that the baby was harmed by their own thoughts or by those of another family member.
Ways to Help
- As soon as possible after the death, explain what has happened in a simple and direct manner.
- Listen to the child and try to understand both what is being said and what is not said.
- Encourage questions. Keep answers brief, straightforward, and to the point.
- Let children know that death is an open subject and that it is okay to feel sadness and to try to talk about it.
- Maintain normal routines as much as possible. Children crave and are reassured by regularity and structure.
- Show affection.
- Reassure children about the cause of death.
- Be tolerant of regression and other behavior changes.
- Let your child attend the funeral or memorial service.
Redmon Funeral Home offers grief counseling
WHEN A PARENT DIES
A guide for patients and their families
Facts and feelings
Children need help to cope with their grief when a parent dies. The surviving parent is usually the main person who must provide the help a child needs in coming to terms with the death of the other parent. However, often the surviving parent is so involved and even incapacitated by their own grief that support from friends and relatives proves essential.
It is important that all those close to a bereaved child should be able to discuss how it was and how it is. Children need to have the facts and the feelings surrounding their loss confirmed often; for this reason it is also important to listen to what they have to say. They will probably need to hear and discuss things over and over again.
Check out what they think, correct and confirm the facts, help them accept their feelings. Above all accept their time scale - a child's grief can be spread over many years. It may also resurface in adulthood, especially at a time of crisis and/or celebration.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to grief and expressing loss, but being honest with children is essential in order to avoid them becoming confused by half-truths and fears.
Children in different age groups grieve in different ways so the help given may need to change to suit the age and personality of the child. This information aims to provide guidelines for parents or caregivers to help them meet the needs of grieving children.
Tell it how it is
If a parent or loved relative is dying of cancer then the children will usually be aware of the illness for some time. In most cases there will be time to talk to the children about illness and death.
Don't try to protect them by discouraging visiting or being present when the parent is dying. Children are often more accepting and down to earth than adults about death. If they are not there when the parent dies, tell them of the death as soon as possible, preferably quietly at home. Ideally, the surviving parent should tell the children so they can start the grieving process together. Letting them see the body may help establish the reality that a parent will not return.
Listen carefully to what the children say about things. Sometimes their grief is not obvious. If the children are very young you may not realize that they, too, are suffering badly, but in a different way, from the loss. Try to encourage children to express their grief. It may be by drawing pictures of the dead parent; it may be by talking about death. Make sure children understand that all sickness does not end in death. Fears and fantasies should be dealt with.
Tell them how sad you feel and that you understand how they feel, too. But, don't expect children to bear your burden or become a substitute for the partner you have lost. Children will ask some basic questions - like:
Did Mum/Dad die because of something I did? Will I die like she/he did? Who will look after me now? Will Dad/Mum die too? A guide to answering these sort of questions is included in this information. Remember that age groups don't end abruptly and problems can span across the ages given here.
It is good for children of any age to be included in the funeral service unless they say they don't want to attend. Children as young as two and a half understand the idea of saying goodbye.
You can explain even to small children something about the service and what it means. They may be concerned about the casket, or the burial, or the cremation. These may need to be explained up to the level of the child's understanding.
Some families find it helpful to have the casket and body at home before the service. You can ask the children if they would like to say goodbye in a very special way by placing a momento in the casket - a drawing, a letter or a flower.
It may also be helpful if a trusted adult cares for young children during the service. After the funeral, children may, in play, reenact the funeral and/or pretend to be sick or dying. This playing out of the illness and the funeral is quite normal.
Age groups and their reactions:
For these young people, facing death can be frightening. They are already coping with physical and mental changes as they move from childhood to adulthood. Bereavement presents an added layer to complicate the already difficult picture that adolescence presents.
It is not uncommon for teenagers to confide or find help for their grief outside the home; as the remaining parent, you should not feel this is a reflection of you.
Conversely some young people will feel isolated because they feel friends shun them or are embarrassed and don't know what to say to them. You may also find school work is affected. A teenager may behave out of character. In extreme cases they may suffer depression, run away, change friends, use drugs, become sexually promiscuous or even suicidal. If they are in any way concerned, get expert help promptly.
Teaching staff and youth leaders involved with the children should always be told of the death and be quietly on the look out for any worrying behavior changes.
Although grieving teenagers may hide their emotions, these emotions can still be intense. Let them know it is okay to be upset and cry. Teenagers can try to protect the parent by keeping quiet about their own feelings; they may need to be given 'permission' to express what they think and feel. They need to know it is okay to talk about their dead parent and can be helped by the remaining parent giving a lead in this direction. Encourage healthy ways to release emotions through sporting or cultural activities.
Teenagers should never be told that they will be taking the place of the parent who has died, rather you should help them focus on their needs for the future, such as education or training for work. However, again it is natural for the remaining members of the family to regroup and some sharing of responsibilities needs to take place.
If you feel you are not able to help the teenager cope with grief and the problems reflecting that grief, then seek professional help.
Older teenagers will see clearly how the death of a parent affects the family and their own life. They may think they should now care for Mum/Dad and other family members. They may be confused about what they should do. As with younger teenagers, help them make decisions which focus on their own needs. It sometimes takes a number of years for a teenager to work through the emotional grieving.
Children with special needs
Grieving for some of these children may be difficult. They do not always understand the disruption to their lives. They can become emotionally very unstable and revert to very childish behavior.
Their needs are the same as for other children, but more patience and understanding is required to help them work through the grief.
Up to two years
The death of a parent will not be understood. However, the child will notice the absence of a parent and the emotional changes in those providing care. Even a small baby may become irritable, crying more; eating habits may change; there may be bowel or bladder upsets.
Two to three years
At about two years, children know that if people are out of sight they can be called back or looked for. Looking for a parent who has died is a typical expression of grief in this age group. It may take time before a child even as young as 18 months realizes that the parent is not coming back. These children need a secure, stable environment. Try to keep to the normal routine of eating and sleeping. They will need attention and love. If you are concerned about your child's behavior, talk to the doctor or health professional.
Three to five years
The child's understanding of death at this age is still limited. The child is used to being away from parents while attending kindergarten, school or a party. However, they are confident those parents will return. As with the younger children, behavioral patterns may change.
Though times of sadness are likely to be short, there may be problems with the bowel or bladder, stomach aches, headaches, rashes, temper tantrums, reversion to baby habits (thumb sucking, comfort blanket etc.). They may suddenly be afraid of the dark, suffer periods of sadness, anger, anxiety, crying.
It is important to contact the child's kindergarten teacher, day care supervisor or school teacher so they can be alert to any problems facing the child. If worrying behavior or distress persists get professional help and support.
Children in this age group need to know that death is nothing like sleeping. They will talk when Mum or Dad is coming back. From this age, children can also think something they've done or have not done may has caused the death, for example not giving the parent a toy, drawing, gift etc. This reasoning may not be immediately evident so talk about any concerns the child has. He or she needs to be reassured that this was not so.
You will have to explain gently that Mum or Dad died and will never come back. Be reassuring. Make sure children know they will be looked after, that the family will stay together. The odds of anything happening to you are not high, but try to ensure children know the person well who would take responsibility for them should this unlikely occurrence arise. Discuss this with the children.
Children in this age group can also understand how a person 'lives on' by the fact that they wouldn't be who they are without the parent's influence. It will be helpful to recall with the children some of the things the parent did with them - such as the games played, holidays enjoyed and so on.
Six to eight years
At this age children will still have difficulty in understanding the reality of death. Serious illness or death of a parent can set these children apart from friends and other classmates. However, their grieving will be spasmodic and they will suffer many of the preschool age group's problems.
They will face the extra stress of questions about the death from classmates when they return to school. You should have spoken to the key teachers before the children return to school and their school mates should have been told how to handle it. Some of the children's friends may want to come to the funeral and this is fine.
Prepare the children for questions. Tell them to say simply, 'My Mum/Dad died.' They need to be told it is okay not to go into any details about their parent's death. Let the child decide who they want to open up to. Ask the teacher to let you know if your child has any problems at school. Grieving children may behave out of character in class, or show anger against a teacher or classmates. School work may suffer because they cannot concentrate and are preoccupied with their loss. They may also suffer with headaches or stomach aches before going to school or at school. Accept these as normal and that they should pass.
There will be feelings of uncertainty and insecurity and children will tend to cling to the surviving parent. At special times of the year (Mother's/Father's Day, Christmas, summer holidays, for instance) children may be especially upset.
As with the younger age group, primary school children need to be reassured that there are also other people who will help look after and protect them. Show them you love them. Again, you can talk with them about the positive and special things they did with their parent.
Be careful not to tell children God has 'taken' the parent to live in heaven. If children seem angry with others (doctor, nurse, minister, God) blaming them for causing the death, help them work through their anger. This anger is normal and tends to show in primary school age children.
If any behavioral problems persist get professional help from therapists specializing in bereavement and grief. This can usually be arranged by approaching your own doctor, school principal or local Cancer Society.
Preadolescent (9 - 12 years)
It is generally accepted that most children have developed a mature concept of death by the age of eight or nine years. However, some of the behavior shown by younger primary school children will inevitably overlap into this age group.
Bereavement at this stage can lead to feelings of helplessness - something that directly contradicts the drive to be more independent at this stage. These children can develop an identity problem. They can have feelings of helplessness yet show a brave face to friends and school mates, and another to family and friends.
They may hide their emotions yet be hurt by remarks made at school; they may not reach expected educational levels, fight at school or rebel against authority. However, school can be a stable place in what may have become a chaotic world. At the extreme, these reactions are a cry for HELP; this makes it important to deal with any concerns about school.
Children in this age group may also try to assume the role of the mother and father. This shouldn't be encouraged, especially emotionally, but be aware that the family 'structure' has changed and the family members who are left will have to regroup and sort out their rules. There will need to be some sharing of responsibility in terms of helping out.
Make sure there is still plenty of time for play, sport and leisure activities, and that children have friends of their own age. Let them know it is okay still to be happy and excited about events. If there are problems, discuss them. Talk them through. If behavior problems continue get professional help.
Milestones in accepting death
Grief has various patterns and may continue on and off for many years, though the intensity may get less. The surviving parent will know when the children are coming to terms with the death when they show they are accepting the reality of the death.
They will be reorganizing life to cope without the dead parent; returning to their normal round of activities and relationships.
Partnerships have different stages of happiness. Be careful not to over-glorify or run down your partner. Children need good, realistic memories on which to build their future.
Your needs are as great as those of your children. Yet, along with your deep sorrow you must cope with the grief of your children. You are the most important person in their life. To help cope with the added responsibility, don't be afraid to take up offers of help from family and friends. Exercise and eat well. Maintain contact with family, friends and support groups who understand your needs. These people can help both you and your children through the grieving period.
If religion is an important part of your life, share your beliefs with your children. This may provide them with answers which may help now or in the future.
Original material is provided by
the Cancer Society of New Zealand