Children are funny when it comes to grief. It can look something like this: "Yea, my dog died. Can I have a peanut butter and banana sandwich?" Children can appear to be unaffected by the loss of a pet but they often express their feelings though behavior and play rather than through words. This does not mean that they are not grieving; they are, just in their own unique ways. Below are some tips for helping children cope with the loss of a pet:
- Living in the moment. Remember that children live in the moment. Since we, as adults, do so little of living in the moment, we really forget what this means. What this means is that a child's acute sense of observation does not go away during the death process. If, as a dog lay dying, the dog loses bowel control, a child will notice and probably say something. Accept a child's observations of the death process without judging or shaming him.
- It's only natural. We sometimes assume that the emotions surrounding death will overwhelm children and so we try to protect them from experiencing upheaval. In fact, discussing death and including children in rituals around death are exactly what children need to help them cope with it. It reminds me a bit of the question of how to discuss sex with children; adults are the ones who are weird about it, not children. Just as children are naturally curious about their own sexuality, so they are naturally curious about the cycles of life and death.
- Mixed emotions. Many of the emotions that are mixed feelings for you are not yet mixed for your child. They have yet to add the layers of guilt, regret, remorse, nostalgia, ad infinitum that we adults tend to tack onto the original feeling. Here's a brief illustration. Our dog was a beloved member of our family. But like all family members, he had some characteristics that were just plain annoying. Say, jumping up on the table to scarf leftovers. When our dog died, my son observed that not having to deal with our dog jumping up on the table anymore was a relief. Period. He wasn't saying that life was better without our dog nor having a guilt trip over not missing certain aspects of our dog. He made a simple observation that didn't have layers of other emotions built over it that a similar observation from me might have included. Your child may well cycle through layers of feeling that he tacks onto the original loss, but if he hasn't added those layers on yet, you certainly don't need to do it for him.
- Include children in rituals around death. Over the course of history, rituals have developed around death so as to help the living integrate death into their ongoing lives. If there is no ritual for children to participate in, they sense that something major is going on--and thus receive a big dose of drama and emotion--without any of the structure that helps them to integrate death into their lives. Rituals need not be complex: Dig a hole, say a prayer, bury the dog. By acknowledging the death of a pet as a natural part of the life cycle, you take away the weightiness that it might otherwise acquire.
- Acknowledge the death. Perhaps the worst possible thing that you can do is to let a pet's death go by without acknowledging it. I am reminded of an unhappy situation that I witnessed firsthand many years ago. I lived next door to a family with two children. When I was gardening in my backyard one day, the children stopped by and told me that their pet hamster had recently died. I asked them if they had buried it, and they said that their parents hadn't got around to it, and had left the animal outside the back door of the house. The next morning, their pet hamster was gone.
There was not much I could do for those two children except to acknowledge their loss, which I did. I felt that they were telling a neighbor about it to check out their own sense that something wasn't quite right with what had happened. Even if it is a pet that most people classify as a rodent, to a child, his pet is a beloved being that he is learning to care for. Be absolutely certain that you treat that pet's death with the dignity it deserves.
- Regression. If your child exhibits a change in behavior from what is typical to that which is typical for a younger child, this can be one of the signs that he is grieving. There are many factors that determine how to negotiate this response with children, but if the regression is for the short term (six months or less) and not extreme, you are probably safe to simply cut him some slack as he learns to cope with life minus his beloved pet.