For many children their first real experience with loss happens when a pet dies.
When a well loved pet dies, children need consolation, love, support and affection more than complicated medical explanations. They need to have their feelings understood and validated.
Their reactions will depend on their age and stage of maturity but it isn’t until the age of 9 years that children fully understand that death is permanent and final.
There are many ways you can tell your child that a pet has died from using a soothing voice or finding a comfortable and familiar place to tell them but the most important thing is to be honest. Trying to protect them with vague and inaccurate explanations can create more anxiety, confusion and mistrust.
Children often have questions like: Why did my pet die? Is it my fault? Where does my pet’s body go to? Will I ever see my pet again? If I wish hard enough and am really good can I make my pet come back? Does death last forever?
It is important to answer such questions simply, but honestly. Your child may experience sadness, anger, fear, denial, and guilt when their pet dies or they may suddenly become jealous of friends who have pets.
Let your child know it’s perfectly normal to miss their pet after they die and encourage them to come to you with questions or for reassurance and comfort whenever they feel sad or overwhelmed.
There is no best way for children to mourn their pets. They need to be given time to remember their pet and it helps to talk about the animal with friends and family or even at school. Mourning a pet has to be done in a child’s own way.
After a pet has died, your child may want to bury the pet, make a memorial, or have a ceremony. Other children may write poems and stories, or make drawings of the pet. Ask your child the way they would like to express themselves and let the situation be guided by them.
Also the death of a pet may cause a child to remember other painful losses, or upsetting events or to experience bad dreams so keep listening, supporting and allowing the grieving process to take its own time – grief is not linear and can’t always be fixed like a broken arm in a certain time and there’s no right or wrong way to grieve and there’s no telling how long it may take.
Everyone is different.
I remember a time when I was teaching a Circle Time lesson on healthy eating when something came up about the death of one of the children’s hamsters which naturally led onto talking about the death of one of the children’s grandparents.
It was a really moving but healing lesson which caught me by surprise but because I felt very comfortable talking about these issues the children all joined in and supported each other and learnt that healing from grief can be painful and slow but something we all experience. By letting the boy talk openly and by acknowledging the grief we all learnt a great deal.
Some useful books for children are “Weep not for me” by C. Jenkins “Goodbye Mog” by J.Kerr “Fred” by P. Simmons
Useful websites for children and pet bereavement are www.bluecross.org.uk
When my dad died ten years ago, someone gave me great advice. They said, “How you handle death and grief is providing a blueprint for how your children handle death and grief in their own emotional lives.” As a parent, I know that I’m a real-life role model for my children, but I hadn’t considered this regarding grief and bereavement until it was pointed out to me.
Children are sensitive, intelligent people who need to be listened to and asked how they feel about the loss of one of their grandparents. They have their own personal, unique relationship with them and need to be allowed to express their grief.
Anger is often a common reaction to grief, and because grieving is a process for you, as well as for your child, it is not linear. It can suddenly overwhelm you, or your child, at any time.
A record, a photograph, an everyday memory or a family occasion can trigger it. Talking and crying together helps heal the grief. It unites you as a family as you come to terms with the loss and changes.
Don’t be afraid to be completely natural in your grief. Don’t hide it away from your children. It’s a natural emotion. Sadness is part of life and by talking it through together your child can experience the healing process first hand.
Beginning the grieving process
When someone important dies, it is a distressing event and people react differently. Some may be shocked; some seem numb, while others get very upset and tearful. Coping with your own feelings can be especially difficult when you are trying to support your children too.
You may be feeling shocked, sad, angry, guilty, anxious, relieved, lonely, orphaned, irritable or many other feelings all a mixture of the whole lot. It may be hard for you to do all the “normal” things you usually do and keep to the same routines as your whole perspective changes.
It helps to talk – to family, friends or neutral people who have experienced the same situation so that you off load your grief to the appropriate people – not your children. Parents often feel that the needs of their children come first but you also need to make time for yourself – because then you can come from a place of stability for your kids.
It’s perfectly natural to cry in front of your children – if you explain what you are feeling. I remember hearing some music many months after my Dad died as I was driving and it just triggered me off, my 12 year old son comforted me and by allowing him in, it helped us both remember “Grandeboy” with great love and affection and we dried our eyes and carried on home.
There is no such thing as a perfect parent so just be a real one.
What children going through loss need:
Time to express their emotions
Time to remember.
Dealing with the emotional waves
I remember arriving at school one Monday morning to see a little boy of 8 years old sitting crying at his desk as his Dad had just passed away the night before from a sudden brain haemorrhage. His Mum just did what she thought was right to keep things “normal” but obviously he was in shock and couldn’t cope so I just took him outside and we went for a gentle walk and I chatted about his Dad and the way he was feeling and we started to talk about the great things he had done with his Dad and he started to laugh about funny things he had said or had done.
Then we talked about the grief as a wave that would sometimes sweep over him and the rest of his family over the next months and how things would always trigger the great sadness from time to time but that it was perfectly normal to feel these waves and that it was always a good idea to come and find someone to talk to and to share these feelings with so he didn’t have to feel alone.
We talked about life never being quite the same again and how change can be painful but how it does heal – when each of us feels ready. It was a great honour to spend time with this little boy as he was going through such a difficult time – there was no “rule” book to follow, we didn’t even have a “bereavement policy” in place until after that day and I just made it up as I went along but I know we helped each other through just listening and being together.
Parents often try to protect their children by not talking about illness or death. Of course this is really understandable because not everyone is comfortable about talking about their emotions or knows what to say.
When my Mum was very ill with emphysema and was rushed to hospital many times it took a toll on me emotionally for over a year, and as an only child myself my kids often found me tired, overwhelmed and tearful but we all sat down one day and I chatted openly how difficult Nanny was and how difficult it all was juggling full time working and caring for her and I was just honest, clear, and direct. The kids felt included in the process and they understood the situation so they were better able to cope themselves.
The importance of rituals
A funeral is a special family occasion, which marks the end of someone’s life and gives children an opportunity to be involved with the rituals and to celebrate the life of someone. They need to be prepared in advance so that they know what to expect and to choose whether they want to attend or not.
I remember hearing a story about a child who wasn’t allowed to attend her Mum’s funeral but saw it go by outside her school through the railings – of course the adults involved made that choice from the highest of intentions but the child felt isolated and distanced from the grieving event. So simply talk to your child and find out what they would prefer.
There’s no evidence to show that children who go to funerals are harmed; in fact, the opposite is true. If they choose not to go, a trusted adult should be with them while the funeral takes place to support them.
There are many wonderful resources available to support you through this difficult time in your life but resources are only a tool that can be used to help – there is no handbook be guided by your intuition, be flexible and seek professional help from your Doctor or other professional bodies if you feel the process is too overwhelming and you need support.
How bereavement affects children
Children handle death and loss in a number of different ways but also it’s helpful to understand that children of differing ages react in a number of different ways to the death of someone close and not always as an adult might react or behave. Children’s understanding of death comes gradually:
Under five years:
Children of this age have little abstract sense of time or distance, so final and forever means very little to them dead means less alive, death is a sleep or a journey
death and life are interchangeable.
From five to eight years:
Death is a frightening person
Death is final
Death is often seen as the end result of violence and aggression and often there’s an intense interest in the rituals surrounding death.
From around nine years onwards:
Children understand that death is the end of bodily life.
Death is inevitable, final and happens to everyone eventually
So from about nine years, most children will have an adult view of death, although this will depend on their development and maturity and their past experiences of death.
The best way of understanding what children think and feel about death is to listen carefully and to talk gently with them and be guided by them.
How children grieve
Babies and toddlers. Babies and toddlers may not understand about death but will react to those around them. For example, a grieving mother will naturally convey her sad feelings to her baby, who in turn may respond by constantly crying.
Primary school children. Older children may experience similar feelings to adults, such as shock, confusion, anger and guilt. Children of this age may not show their feelings openly, so you may think that they aren’t affected by the death but any altered behaviour may indicate that they too are suffering and need support and acknowledgement of their pain from you.
Common behaviour changes include becoming withdrawn, bed-wetting, lack of concentration, clinging, bullying, telling lies and being aggressive, all of which may indicate their upset state. So be patient, be loving and be supportive in the way you allow your child to handle their emotions during this transition.
Teenagers. Teenagers’ grief reactions are often very similar to adults but negative feelings, fears and anxieties may lead to violence and aggression.
Mood swings and periods of depression are also very common but it may be difficult to separate them from normal adolescent behaviour but increased tension and fighting within your family may become more common and like adults, teenagers may suffer from headaches, sleep difficulties and eating disturbances around this time of change too.
The following are comments expressed by bereaved children of all ages, demonstrating clearly some of the feelings they may experience:
Denial – “I don’t believe it. It didn’t happen. It’s just a dream. Grandad will come back.”
Guilt – “She got sick because I was naughty. I killed her!”
Blaming others – “It’s the doctor’s fault. He didn’t treat him right.”
Anxiety – “Who’s going to take care of me now?”
Many parents feel that childhood is a time free from difficulties and challenging events but in reality this just isn’t the case- but it’s how you handle the challenges that makes your children grow up well balanced, resilient and strong -able to handle the blows life deals them.
Here’s a poem that I hope can help you move from a place of sadness to a place of gratitude.
“You can shed tears that she is gone,
or you can smile because she has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she’ll come back,
or you can open your eyes and see all she’s left.
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her,
or you can be full of the love you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday,
or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her only that she is gone,
or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind,
be empty and turn your back.
Or you can do what she’d want:
smile, open your eyes, love and go on.”
~ David Harkins
Here are some helpful websites:
The Clara Burgess Centre, Bayshill Road, Cheltenham GL51 3WH
Tel: 01242 515157
Helpline: 0845 203 0405 (Mon-Fri 9-5pm)
Support for bereaved children and their parents or carers.
Tel: 020 7239 1000; 0800 1111 (24-hour helpline)
Freepost NATN1111, London E1 6BR
Childhood Bereavement Network
Tel: 0115 911 8070
Child Bereavement Trust
Tel: 01494 446648 (general inquiries); 0845 357 1000 (information and support line)
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About the author
Sue Atkins is a Parenting Expert who offers practical guidance for bringing up happy, confident, well behaved children. She is also the author of “Raising Happy Children for Dummies” one in the famous black and yellow series published worldwide and the highly acclaimed Parenting Made Easy CDs. She regularly appears on BBC Breakfast and The Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 and her parenting articles are published all over the world.
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Sue Atkins the Parenting Expert
T: + 44 1883 818329 M: 07740 622769