Posted by: secondchancehumanesociety | June 10, 2009

Children & Pet Loss

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Dear Pet Column Readers,

My name is Tigger and I am a handsome 4 year old cat here at the Second Chance Shelter.  As the host of this week’s Pet Column I will be discussing how to help children cope with the loss of a pet.  This is an important topic for any family and so involved that I will not be able to cover the entire topic in one Pet Column.  Thus, this is one in a series of Columns exploring this topic. 

Death and dying are two of the hardest realities of life to explain to children. Very often, the death of a family pet is a child’s first encounter with this immutable law of nature. How this event is handled can have a far-reaching impact on a child’s understanding of death and dying.

A child’s level of understanding of death depends on his or her age. Older children can grasp the finality of death while younger children often view their relationship with a pet as indefinite. They don’t understand that animals run on a different biological clock, or that illness or injury may make euthanasia the best option.

Marty Tously, a bereavement counselor and author of Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping states that, “At all ages, honesty is the best policy. That means using the words death and dying, and explaining the permanence of death. You do it gently but without confusing what dying actually means.”

Tously also states that a child’s ability to understand what death means depends on his/her emotional and cognitive development, she has outlined the generally understood guideline of how children perceive death and dying:

Under 2: A child can feel and respond to a pet’s death, based on the reaction of those around him or her. A child picks up the stress felt by family members, no matter what the cause.

2 to 5: The child will miss the animal as a playmate, but not necessarily as a love object. They will see death as a temporary state – something like the way leaves fall off a tree in fall but grow back in the spring. They may react to the trauma around them through regression, such as thumb sucking or temper tantrums.

5 to 9: Children begin to perceive death as permanent, but they may indulge in “magical thinking,” believing that death can be defied or bargained with. This is also the period when children recognize a correlation between what they think and what happens. Parents need to reassure children that they did not cause the pet’s death nor can they reverse it.

10 and up: Children generally understand that all living things will eventually die, and that death is total. Understanding and accepting are two different things, however. They may cycle through the normal stages of grief that grownups do: denial, bargaining, anger, guilt, depression and acceptance.  Or they may react in other ways such as withdrawing from friends and family or becoming disinterested in their normal activities.

Children may also react by fearing abandonment, reasoning that if a pet can die, then their parents could die as well.  They often become intensely curious about death and what happens to the body. They may ask for details that you may find uncomfortable to explain. These are questions you should answer in a straightforward, gentle and careful manner.

The follow up column on this topic will detail the recommended ways to explain the death of your pet – as certain approaches can have very negative repercussions.

Call the Second Chance Helpline at 626-2273 to report a lost pet, learn about adopting a homeless pet, or about the SCHS Spay/Neuter Financial Assistance, Volunteer & Foster Care, or other Programs.  Visit our shelter pets online: www.secondchancehumanesociety.org.  Direct Pet Column questions to:  kelly@secondchancehumanesociety.orgPhoto by Real Life Photographs.

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