Grief and Loss

Children and Loss—Person or Pet

Jean Piaget, a Swiss naturalist and psychologist, put forth the first formal theory of cognitive development. Beginning in infancy and ending in adolescence, according to Piaget, children pass through four increasingly sophisticated cognitive stages of development.

From birth to two years of age is the sensorimotor stage, during which the child learns to coordinate sensory experiences and motor behaviors. They learn to interact with the world by sucking, grasping, crawling and walking. In just over a year's time, they change from reflexive, passive, helpless, creatures to purposeful, locomoting, language-using individuals.

From two to seven, children go through the preoperational stage, which includes a rapid growth in vocabulary, more sophisticated grammar and the beginnings of the ability to reason and use abstract thinking strategies.

From seven to 12, children go through the concrete operational stage, in which they learn to reason logically about concrete things and can do moderately successful abstract thinking. From 12 to 18, children enter the formal operational stage; they use sophisticated abstract thinking, can test out mental assumptions or hypotheses, and are fluid in engaging in "reverse" mental processes such as subtracting what was added or dividing what was multiplied.

In addition to these cognitive, or thinking, stages of development, there are social-emotional stages on the road to adulthood. The psychoanalytic theorist Erik Erikson said that each child, as he or she matures physically, must also mature psychologically by successfully working through emotional issues. In the first year of life, a child must develop the ability to trust, followed by the ability to learn, and thus be somewhat autonomous by age two. By five they are learning to take initiatives and explore the environment. From six through 12, the child must achieve a feeling of competence versus feelings of inferiority. From 12 through 18, the adolescent must form his or her own unique psychological identity. Both sets of stages are indicators of how a child will react to the loss of a pet. Parents need to consider both sets when determining the best way to talk to a child about it.

One of the most important things a parent can do in preparing their child for the death of a loved one is to talk with him or her about the life cycle of all living things. Toddlers can see baby birds hatching and leaves falling to the ground. These situations give parents more than enough material from which to launch into discussing birth, life and death. And most parents do not have a problem talking about birds' eggs or about kittens being born. Both events are the beginning of the life cycle. Many adults do, however, have a hard time talking about the end of the life cycle.

If you are a parent, ask yourself: How comfortable do I feel about the subject of death—your own death, a relative's death, a favorite pet's death? The answer can begin to open your eyes and increase your awareness of your comfort level regarding mortality issues and can serve as a tool when trying to communicate to your child the important issues surrounding death and dying. Your children will take their cues from you. They will sense and observe whether or not you are approachable to discuss death. Kimberly's father would never talk about death. An unwritten assumption in her home was that if you talked about it, "it" might happen! Even if someone in her family had died, she and her family would not talk about it. As a teenager, Kimberly remembers being brave and going against the grain in bringing up the taboo subject. She would often ask, "What do you think happens when you die?" Such queries met with stone silence. Her father would give her the "look," subtly expressing disapproval for her bringing up the subject. Her mother told her later that she never had heard Kimberly's father discuss death. The lesson? You as a parent would be prudent to examine your own feelings about death and learn to become comfortable talking about the subject before a loved one or pet dies.

A good metaphor to use with young children when discussing death is the door. Explain that before we were born, we had no idea what our world or life would be like. At birth, we went through a door through which you can pass only one way. That is an easy concept to grasp, since a child can clearly understand that they can never return to their mother's womb. Death, you tell them, is like another one-way door. When a person or animal goes through that door they cannot return. Depending upon your family's religious beliefs, you may want to elaborate at that point on what you believe happens on the other side of the door.

An adult must be careful in using metaphors when explaining death and dying to a young child. A classic mistake is to use the metaphor of sleep. Never tell a child that the family pet went to sleep when trying to explain its death. They may always hold out hope that it will wake up. Be as honest as you can. Tell them the truth.

Tell the child facts—they are more capable than you think in handling the facts. The facts are much better than not knowing what happened to the pet or what led to its demise. If "Bruiser," was old and suffering from a painful heart condition, then relate the facts: "Bruiser was very sick and Dr. Jones said he was in a lot of pain, so he gave him a certain medicine that would take the pain away and make his heart stop beating." Or if Bruiser was in an accident: "Bruiser was in the street and a car ran over him. We took him to the vet but it was too late. He died." The child may ask, "Was he in pain?" You can answer, "I don't know," or "Yes, he was, but only for an instant," or, "Yes, he was. It was hard for me to see him in so much pain."

Young children might talk about their pet's death over and over. This is merely their need to master the situation emotionally. By going over and over the demise of the family pet, the child integrates the experience into their psyche, achieves understanding and closure. They master the crisis and can move on.

Some children, however, may react to the loss of their pet by clamming up and withdrawing. Kimberly's oldest daughter didn't say anything when one of the family's pets died. When Kimberly would approach her daughter to see if she wanted to talk it, she would say that she didn't have anything to say about it.

Kimberly and her husband reassured their daughter that if she had questions or feelings about the death, they would be glad to listen. A couple of months later, on the way to dance lessons, her daughter blurted out, "I sure miss Bruiser. It makes me sad every time I think about him. I hate feeling sad." Kimberly reflected on this and then proceeded to talk to her daughter about experiencing sadness. This opened up the entire subject of death and dying, which led to lots of hugs, kisses and physical comfortings.

Some things Kimberly learned from this experience:

  • Think about and be clear on your religious beliefs and values before you have to answer your child's questions.
  • Reinforce the message to your child that they were in no way responsible for the pet's death simply because they had once said they hated their pet, or wished their pet were gone or dead.
  • Use the child's own words and slang to phrase your explanations and feed back to them the key words they use when they start revealing their grief to you.
  • Answer questions literally. Be concrete, be simple, keep it short and stay in the here and now. Parents tend to read more then they should into children's questions about death and dying.
  • Allow yourself to grieve as well.
  • Remember, as discussed earlier in this chapter, everyone grieves differently and according to a different schedule. Be patient.
  • If your child does not want to talk about their feelings about their pet's death, then you as a parent can share your feelings when it is appropriate.
  • Provide a rite of passage honoring your deceased pet; do something to help your child and your family say good-bye. This can be a funeral, a song, a poem, a story, whatever, but do it as a family.
  • Do not rush out and purchase another pet to replace the dead one. It gives the child the message that it is not OK to feel grief.
  • Remember that kids use the defense mechanism of denial just as adults do. "I think Izzy will be home when we get there," a child might say after leaving the vet hospital or animal cemetery. An appropriate answer would be, "You really want him to be there, don't you? It's hard going home and realizing that he died and will not be there."

To further assist you talking to your child about a pet's death, we have prepared an original Parent-Child Dialogue Guide:

Parent-Child Dialogue Guide on Pet Loss

AGE: 0-3
GRIEF RESPONSE: Child talking about it all the time or not talking about it at all. They may act it out in play (a doll died) trying to get mastery by repeatedly talking about it.
LANGUAGE SKILLS: Very limited.
SUGGESTIONS: Use terms they know and use. Use illustrations. Talk about the cycle of all things, such as flowers, bugs. "This is a seed. It turns into a flower, then the flower dies. Everything has a beginning, a middle and an end."

AGE: 4-7
GRIEF RESPONSE: Crying, talking about how much they miss the pet. Anger, outbursts, acting out with friends.
LANGUAGE SKILLS: Can now deal with literal facts. Ready to learn parents' religious beliefs.
SUGGESTIONS: Be honest. Look at own moral beliefs. Be fairly factual; explain what happened. Use an analogy: bread turns moldy, dust returns to the earth. Or simply say, "His body was so old, it just stopped working and he died." Answer questions literally, not figuratively.

AGE: 8-12
GRIEF RESPONSE: More extreme reactions of above age group. Aggressive behavior, tantrums, being very emotional, many more tears. More anxiety about death and big spiritual issues. Forming own spiritual beliefs. Will tend to model mom's and dad's grief reactions.
LANGUAGE SKILLS: Can think abstractly. Can see death as final. Begins to fear own death. Sparks existential questions.
SUGGESTIONS: Parents should help child express feelings of grief. They must come to terms with their own mortality issues. Parents should share own reactions to pet's death and provide many opportunities for child to vent grief.

AGE: 12 over
GRIEF RESPONSE: Withdrawal, depression, adult-like melancholy, rebelliousness. May appear as "having it together," but really doesn't. Engages in denial.
SUGGESTIONS: Parents should initiate subtle, directed activities to help teen express pent-up feelings and to express them in an appropriate manner. Talk to the child as thought sharing the loss too.

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