6 Ways to Help Children Process the Death of a Pet

One of the hardest things to explain to a child is death, but as much we wish it weren’t true, it’s a natural part of life and it happens to every living thing. 

For many children, the death of a pet is the first time they have to face this painful chapter of life. Grief is an extremely complicated emotion, usually involving a mixture of confusing feelings of pain, sadness, guilt, anger, and fear of their own death, or the death of family members.

1.       Honor the pet.
    Most cultures have ceremonies or rituals to honor those we have lost. It helps us accept the loss and recognize the importance of the loved one in our lives. Children may find comfort in such a ceremony or in some sort of memorial of their beloved pet.

2.      Embrace memories.
    The finality of death doesn’t erase the memories we have made. Helping children record and visualize their memories can help them see how the pet lives on in their hearts.

3.      Identify feelings.
As I mentioned earlier, there are so many feelings bundled together in the form of grief. Helping children sort out each feeling and understand why they feel those things, can help them embrace all feelings as normal. When we are able to define feelings, we can separate our actions from them. Often, when a child acts out, he or she is having trouble not only articulating but understanding what they are feeling.

Having emotional intelligence begins with being able to define feelings and see how emotions often come in groups and that they, therefore, have roles to play in helping us through difficult times.

4.      List ways to sooth sadness.
Just like we take aspirin when we have physical pain, we find ways to sooth emotional pain. Sometimes those are healthy tools, and sometimes they’re not. Helping children find healthy ways to sooth painful feelings can help lay the groundwork healthier responses to adult feelings. Helping children make a list of things that make them feel better can give them a toolbox to reach for when they don’t know what to do with what they are feeling.

5.      Tell them crying is good.
Speaking of soothing painful feelings, our body has a natural reaction to feelings of sadness and anger—crying. Often we think we are soothing children by telling them not to cry, that there’s no reason to cry. However, crying is important, in a very real way. It even releases a bit of a natural pain killer. I believe that when we deny our bodies of their own instinctive reactions, we confuse our emotions and delay our emotional processing. With grief, in particular, delaying the process of grief can extend our pain.

6.      Make sure they understand it’s not their fault.
We often immediately identify feelings of sadness and anger when it comes to grief. Those are frequently the first to present themselves and the most dominant of the feelings we may have when we’ve lost someone or something close to us. One of the trickier emotions is guilt. Guilt usually comes in a package with its own protective shell of confusion and shame. It is especially important for children to understand they are not at fault when a pet’s death is outside our control. Misplaced guilt can have long-term effects on children’s self-esteem.

Death is a natural part of life but even adults often find grief to be a difficult journey at any age. Humans have forever been trying to find ways to avoid death. And while medical and technical advances have helped to extend lives, we’ve yet to find a way to keep living things from eventually dying.

There are so many ways to help children process the death of a pet. I’ve outlined a few here, but I have created some practical activities you can share with children ages 6 to 10 in the activity book Memories of You. It’s important to help children visualize in a very real way what they feel and need, and this workbook uses art and writing activities that can help children understand what they are feeling, how they are reacting, and how to move forward.

Here are some ways you might use this activity book with a student:

Send a book home with parents when they request help (this is one of the most effective ways to use them with students).

After a counseling session, hand one to students and have them work in it independently.

Use it as part of your individual counseling sessions (do a couple pages each session).

Print them and select certain pages to work with students or small groups.

Make selected activities be a part of a whole class lesson (i.e. teach lesson about self-confidence then give each student their own book).

After sessions with students, have a folder where they complete five pages and then during next week’s session discuss those five. Give them another five until they complete the entire book.

To download a copy of Memories of You, visit my TpT Store HERE.