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What to say when a child loses a pet

By Collett Smart - psychologist 1 min read

Children often display their grief differently to adults, help your child process theirs in healthy ways.

Helping our children cope with loss is perhaps one of the most important life events we can help them through. Like adults, children experience grief after the death of a loved one or even the death of pet. However, children often display their grief in a different manner to adults. For example, some children may:

  • appear to regress and act much younger than their age for a period of time (such as in speech, bedwetting and thumb-sucking)
  • cry excessively
  • withdraw
  • appear not to care about the loss
  • become irritable, moody or fearful
  • display fits of anger or tantrums
  • develop nightmares and sleep disturbances
  • engage in boisterous play
  • experience a loss of appetite
  • become anxious about leaving a parent or sibling
  • begin to ask to skip school regularly
  • say they feel unwell (tummy aches or headaches)
  • struggle to maintain concentration
  • ask excessive questions about death or dying

The best way to support our children is to help them process their grief in healthy ways, rather than avoid it. Avoidance of grief will only lead to more issues in the long term.

Helping children process grief and overcome loss might include any of the following:

  • Use concrete terms. Try to avoid terms like “passed on” or “fell asleep”, which can become confusing to a child.
  • Children can be fearful about death, so speaking simply and honestly about the loss, without giving too many details that are difficult for children to process is important.
  • It is essential not to offer false hope, but to listen and then reassure them that your job is to keep them safe.
  • Allow your children to ask the same questions many times, while kindly and patiently answering as simply as possible.
  • Help children to choose ways to remember the person or pet in ways that are meaningful to them (you could create a memory box, make a photo album, plant a tree or set up a small memorial to visit at anniversaries).
  • Get back to routines as soon as possible. Routines create a sense of safety and stability.
  • Give your child permission to still experience times of joy and fun, without feeling guilty.
  • Remember that no two children will react the same way.                                
  • Make time to talk about the good memories.                   

Collett Smart is a psychologist, qualified teacher and author with more than 20 years experience. She is mum to three children and appears regularly on national television and radio, as an expert on children and family issues. Collettsmart.com


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