Any form of loss is difficult, and grief comes in many different forms. Consider the loss of a loved one, a home, a friend, or even a dream. All of these losses can produce heartache and grief. For children, their first loss is often that of a beloved family pet. Helping kids manage the loss of their pet can be difficult for parents and caregivers to navigate, especially if they are grieving themselves.
In today’s post, I’m going to help you learn my 5 tips for guiding your child through the grieving process. (**SPOILER ALERT** These same tips might even help YOU process your grief too.)
1. Process Grief- Don't run from it!
The single most important tip that I will share with you today, is your child must go through the tunnel of processing grief. What do I mean by this? Essentially, we can imagine that grief is like a tunnel carved deep into a mountain. You start on one side, go through the tunnel, and end up on the other side of the mountain. Grief, along with most situations that require emotion regulation, are this scenario. As parents, we often times want to protect our children from sorrow, anger, and other disturbing emotions. As such, we have a tendency to rescue them from having to go through the tunnel. But in truth, we aren’t doing them any favors.
When we rescue our children from going through the tunnel, we are preventing them from learning valuable skills in emotion regulation. You can’t learn to cope with anger, sadness, anxiety, or grief if you don’t experience it and learn to deal with it.
In an attempt to help our children cope with grief, we often times provide them an escape route within the tunnel. This might look like offering a treat, such as a cookie or new toy, to distract them from the situation, or perhaps replacing lost items, etc. When we provide escape routes, we are cutting short the grieving process. My first tip for you today, is don’t do that. Your child needs to experience the tunnel and make it through to the other side in order to develop good coping skills in managing grief.
The rest of my tips will help you learn how to guide your child through the tunnel instead of providing them with an escape passage.
2. Provide Comfort, Not appeasement-
Learn coping skills to manage grief effectively
One of the biggest mistakes many of us make is replacing lost pets too quickly. As parents, the temptation is great. We know that bringing in a new fur baby is going to help our children feel better about the loss of their pet. It appeases their aching heart. In truth, it might even help you, as the parent, to feel better about the loss of your beloved animal as well. My recommendation is to avoid engaging in this behavior. Let’s talk a little more about this…
We’ve all done this at some point in time. Perhaps you’ve done it for yourself, maybe your parents did it for you, or your child had a pet before that has passed away and you have replaced. It’s important to resist the temptation to replace a beloved pet too quickly. In doing this, you are preventing yourself or your child from going through the grieving process. Instead, you're providing an escape passageway out of the tunnel. It feels good because it helps to squish out your grief, but in the long run, it keeps you and your child from learning how to cope with grief, which is an important skill to learn.
Grief is an emotion that we will all experience, and unfortunately, will experience multiple times in our lives. As such it’s important that we learn how to manage grief and cope with it in healthy and appropriate ways. But every time you provide an escape passage for your child, you are denying them the opportunity to learn how to manage grief.
Now, I’m not saying that you cannot replace your pet in the future. I’m a big animal lover myself, and if I could own a zoo I would. Instead, what I am suggesting you do is wait 4+ weeks before bringing in another pet. Go through all the processes you would normally do if you were not intending to replace the pet (i.e picking up all the dog toys or cleaning and storing the litterbox, etc.). This acts as a way for your child to go through the tunnel and experience reminders in the process of having to say goodbye fully. By doing this, your child learns to experience grief in the different ways that it will present itself and will be given the opportunity to navigate the situation and cope with it appropriately.
Let’s look at an example…
I recently had to put my cat down. My daughter was devastated, and after a day, she asked if we would get another cat. My husband and I knew we would get another cat, but we knew it was important not to replace the pet too quickly. As such, our intention was to wait a month. So, we went through the process of cleaning up all of our pet’s toys and putting all those objects away. We threw away items that were damaged or extremely well loved, packaged up all the food and stored the bowls, dishes, and litterbox. Everything was put away. On the surface, it looks as though we have no intention of getting another cat, and as far as she knows, we aren’t going to get another cat any time soon.
This experience was valuable, because my daughter had to go through the process of picking up all the items, storing the items, and seeing the "kitty room" cleaned out. As we worked through this process, it was painful. She and I both grieved, but it was extremely valuable. It gave her and I the opportunity to go through the tunnel, cope with it healthfully, and come out the other side.
3. Manage Stress Cycles-
Use movement to help the body manage stress
There is plenty of research to show that exercise is excellent for your mental health. Exercise helps to decrease anxiety, decrease stress by burning off cortisol (the stress hormone), and decrease sad mood by pumping endorphins (the "feel good" hormones) into the brain. As such, a good way to help manage grief is to go out and get some exercise.
The day we lost our cat, I made sure my daughter and I went for a nice long walk. We took our dog, and enjoyed walking the neighborhood as she and I talked about our favorite kitty memories, and the sadness we felt over the loss of our cat. Essentially, we were processing verbally our grief while allowing our bodies to close out stress cycles and improve our mood.
There is a lot of research to show that processing emotional material while walking is very effective. This has to do with something known as bilateral stimulation. If you have ever heard of EMDR for trauma treatment, it is primarily based on the neuroscience of bilateral stimulation. Now, I’m not going to dive into the science of bilateral stimulation here. Just take my word for it when I say that getting some exercise, especially something like running or walking, is effective for helping your brain process emotional material. It’s a true statement!
That week after our cat died, my daughter and I went on walks daily. Often times, the conversation of our cat would come up, and each time it got easier.
4. Watch Your Language-
Validate & Normalize the emotional experience
Kids are going to want to talk about it, A LOT! There might be anger leading to blaming you or someone else in the situation. There might be sadness leading to statements like, “I wish the dog died instead.” There could be anxiety leading to the fear of your death or the loss of someone/something else they love dearly. It’s all normal, all part of the process, and it all has to be dealt with- not suppressed!
Let your child process their emotions, and be very careful to validate their feelings. Be cautious of statements such as:
“It’s bad of you to wish the dog died instead” (shaming)
“You’re being silly for crying like this” (shaming)
“Why are you still upset? Why can’t you be more like your brother?” (invalidating)
“You're acting like a person died. It’s just an animal.” (invalidating)
Try statements like these instead:
“I know you loved the cat very much. It’s normal to wish something else was gone, but it’s better not to wish that this happened to something else.” (Normalizes while providing corrective feedback)
“I know this is very painful for you, but if you keep crying like this, you’re going to get a headache. Let’s try taking some deep breaths together and go for a little walk.” (Validates and teaches a healthy coping skill)
“I can see that you’re still really upset about what happened. My heart still hurts too. Do you want to talk about it with me?” (Normalizes and validates while encouraging verbal processing)
“I can see you loved your pet so much. When I lost my grandma, I cried a lot too. I loved her so much. I understand how much you’re hurting.” (Normalizing and validating)
5. Consider Activities to Provide Closure-
Make sure they are age appropriate
After any death, it’s important to engage in activities that promote emotional closure. There are many activities you can engage in, and simply going on Pinterest or Google will give you many different ways to help process the grief of a lost pet. You can consider projects like:
Making a Gravestone: Shop for one online or make one with paint and a brick.
Creating a Memory Book: Collect photos of the pet (or draw some) and put together a scrapbook.
Host a Ceremony: Consider a small funeral where each member of the family shares their favorite memory and can say their final words to the pet.
Write a Letter: Have your child write a letter to their pet, saying good bye. There is so much that happens neurologically when we write out our thoughts and feelings. It’s why journaling can be a powerful coping skill. Writing a letter helps to harness that power and process lingering emotions of the loss.
I hope this article was helpful to you in learning how to process the loss of a pet. These tips are also excellent in helping your child process other losses too, such as saying good bye to a friend who is moving away or processing the death of a family member. I wish you luck during this difficult time for you and your family.
As always, Happy Parenting!