Helping Your Teen Cope with the Death of a Pet
For many people, pets are an extended part of the family. That’s why it can feel devastating when a beloved dog, cat or other animal passes away. Adolescents may show anything from an apparent total lack of concern to excessively emotional reactions. When a pet dies, it is natural to feel a wide range of emotions from sadness to anger to guilt; be sure to communicate to your teen that these feelings are all normal. Encourage your teen to express their feelings, and try to understand their point of view. Their pet may have offered friendship and unconditional love when all their other relationships were changing. Many young people look at their pet as an anchor of childhood; always loving, forgiving and loyal. Recognize that teens may or may not show their emotions openly, but either way this is an opportunity for parents to model compassion and comfort. Simply let them know that you are here for them if they wish to share how they are feeling, but understand that they may feel more comfortable sharing with their friends than with you at this phase in their lives.
What a Parent Can Do
Do not trivialize the death of a pet. Just like adults, children need time and opportunity to mourn, and everyone mourns in different ways. Teens need their parents to validate their feelings and understand how much they miss their pet. It’s important to let your teen know that grief is an appropriate response and everyone expresses it in different ways (crying, numbness, apathy, staying busy, etc.), all of which are normal.
Suggest different ways to remember the pet. Many people find it comforting to recall happy memories of their pet. Make some suggestions to your teen, such as, making a scrapbook, creating a memory box, planting a tree in memory of the pet, recording their memories in a journal, planning a funeral or memorial service for your pet, or making a donation in a pet’s memory to an animal shelter. All of these ideas can help your teen hold on to the good and happy memories.
Let the child’s close adults know about the death. Inform your child’s teacher, coach, extended family, or other adults who are close in their life of the death, so that they can be appropriately supportive.
Don’t rush to replace the pet. It is so tempting to rush out and get a new pet to love, and your teen may even be the one to ask for one, but try to hold off to provide the family time to mourn. Frequently, the new pet does not heal the pain and can even make everyone draw unfair comparisons.
Create a safe atmosphere to talk about death and/or the pet. Open communication is important, and especially so when everyone is dealing with pain. Tell your teen that death is a part of life and that it’s okay to talk about it, and share your favorite happy memories of the pet with them. One of the most effective ways to cope with grief is through talking about the loss with friends and family members.
Seek outside help if your child has a hard time coping. If your child is already dealing with stress such as divorce, a parent’s illness, difficulties at school, or a conflict with a close friend or sibling, the death of a pet can be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Find a counselor, psychologist, or therapist with whom your teen can talk.
Grief is a process, not an event. It takes time; be patient. Children learn how to handle loss from the adult role models in their lives. To help your children grieve in a healthy way, be honest about your own sorrow, and don’t try to hide it. This will help your children feel less alone, and you can model a healthy way of dealing with sad feelings. Never criticize a child for how they feel or tell a child how they should feel.