For many people a pet is a beloved member of the family and when they die it is a significant loss.
They could be a cat, dog, bunny, fish, or guinea pig – but we love our pets. They enrich our lives, are close companions, and in some cases, they have been with us our whole life.
Whether it was from old age, illness or an accident, our pets will die eventually. When this moment comes, it is natural and expected to feel grief and sadness. In some cases, this grief can be like what we would feel if a close friend passes.
When we lose a pet, our feelings can be very complicated. We may feel sadness, but we may feel other things too, such as anger, guilt, fear or one of the other responses to loss. Reactions are going to be different for each person in the family, but this loss can be particularly distressing for children - as they are likely, to have grown with their pet - or when the pet had a companionship role for someone in the family, (when they live with a mature couple after their children have moved, or when a person lives only with their pet).
We may also experience sadness and anger if people don't seem to understand our loss, or they say things like, "But it's only a pet, why don't you get a new one?". We may feel guilt, like you could have done something differently, or you could have spent more time with your pet. Whatever you are feeling, it's OK to grieve the loss of your pet.
Some ideas for helping you and your family to cope with the loss of your beloved pet are:
- Holding a ceremony such as a funeral or memorial service, can help create some closure, as it is a marker of the passing of a life of a beloved member of the family. Children can participate by decorating the burial box and you can put things inside that your pet liked or things that were important for them (like their blanket or favourite toy)
- Write a letter or a poem to your pet (children can make a drawing), telling them what they meant in your life. You could either read it at the memorial service or put it in the burial box for them
- If you are making arrangements for your pet's passing (because of their old age or a terminal illness), you can have the family present, so they can say goodbye. You can plan for them to have the best last day, full of love and treats and surrounded by family, before they pass
- Take some time-off as a family, to share stories and memories of your pet. This could also happen at the memorial and afterwards you could also light a candle or sing or pray
- Invite your children to create a memory book or board, with photos and drawings to keep as part of the family photo albums
- In the burial place, you could either plant a tree, a plant with beautiful flowers or put a special mark or rock, so you can remember where it is and where you and your children can visit, if you wish
- If you wish you could share your pet's history and photo on a pet's internet memorial website
- In some areas, there will be pet cemeteries and pet cremation facilities. Your local veterinary staff and funeral directors may have ideas for burial sites.
How to support your children after their pet has passed?
It is expected that your child may be upset with the loss of their pet, the grieving process is going to be different in each case. Some ideas for you to support them are:
- Explain in an age-appropriate way what happened or has to happen (in the cases when you know your pet will pass). In some cases, an experience like this will be their first experience with death, so telling them it is OK to cry or to feel sad would be helpful, as they may not understand what they are feeling
- Respect their timing. If you are making arrangements for your pet to pass away, you child may not want to participate or be present. Encourage them to write them a letter or make a drawing that you can offer to share or leave with the pet (if it's private) or ask them how they would wish to say goodbye, if they want to
- Pay attention to the days after. Children may seem quieter or withdrawn for a while. Invite them to spend time with you, so you could talk about what they are feeling, ask them what they would like to do that would make them feel better, and if possible and appropriate, do it.
If at any point you have concerns about your child or someone in your family, please seek support from a mental health practitioner. You could also explore the other topics in the section for more information and ideas or contact the Resource Centre to request a support information pack.