Experts weigh in on helping children through pet loss

By: Cari DeLamielleure-Scott, Elizabeth Scussel | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published August 15, 2015


METRO DETROIT —  Grief is not an event; it’s a process.

Depending on age, explaining death to a child can be difficult. Although parents may want to protect their child from these experiences, experts say it is important for adults to find ways to guide children through the grief process.

If it’s the child’s first experience with death, it can be especially trying, said Corey Gut, a veterinarian with DePorre Veterinary Hospital in Bloomfield Hills.

“For children, there’s a lot of confusion because death is a permanent thing. They won’t understand what it means,” Gut said, explaining that kids also express grief differently than adults. “Being young, they also don’t understand an animal’s life span and why it’s so much shorter than human counterparts.”

Young children — toddlers and preschoolers — may understand the idea of death, but they may not grasp the permanency of death and will ask the same question multiple times. They need repetition, and it comes down to how parents communicate with their child and how much they understand their child, said Nikki Sulaica, a child and adolescent psychologist with Henry Ford Health System.

“If we use language like, ‘We put the dog to sleep’ or ‘God came and took the dog,’ that to a toddler — because of their understanding of the world — can be kind of scary,” Sulaica said.

Parents should instead use the word “died” and ask the child about their feelings; however, parents should never tell the child how to feel or not to feel, Sulaica said, adding that parents should explain that the child will not see the animal again.

Young children look to their parents for reactions, and although they may sometimes mimic a parent, they also bounce back quickly, Sulaica said.

“It’s important to make sure children understand that it’s OK to be sad, ask questions and grieve,” Gut said. “Don’t be afraid to show them that you’re sad. Talk to them about it.”

Last year, Gut released a book, “Being Brave for Bailey,” as a way for adults to broach the subject of pet loss with their children.

“A lot of people asked me how to bring it up with their kids,” she said. “(This book) is really a way to open that conversation.”

Elementary-age children understand the permanency of death better than young children. Sulaica suggested that when discussing death with an older child, parents should help navigate complicated feelings that the child may not have experienced before because the pet may have been the first close relationship they have had to manage.

“A lot of it is helping them navigate their own feelings and grief, and just creating an environment that says whatever you’re feeling is OK, and talking about it,” she said.

Children show grief in a variety of ways, such as through artwork, a setback in potty training or not eating. Sulaica said these are all normal reactions, but if it lasts for more than two or three weeks, parents should consider reaching out for additional support.

“It’s not that a kid can’t be sad, but if you’re having some of those bigger, life-destruction problems, then you need a little support,” Sulaica said.

People benefit from rituals that memorialize the pet and help “seal the deal,” Sulaica added. Parents could hang a paw print, spread ashes or put together a photo album with their child, but it is important to include the child.

“I would invite kids to be a part of a memorializing experience. … Even choices about should we bury our pet or should we cremeate our pet. Let them be involved in whatever is appropriate,” Sulaica said.

Gut agreed, and suggested crafting a shadowbox to commemorate the pet. Or, she said, plant a garden or tree, or write a poem with your child.

When memorials are created, children tend to have an easier time.

“It’s a very emotional experience,” she said. “When you broach the subject together, you can heal together.”

When the time comes to choose Fido’s final resting place, it’s also important to take the child’s feelings into consideration, said Bruce Cobb, events counselor at Acacia Park Cemetery in Beverly Hills, which offers a pet cemetery.

“(Our pets) are our companions. It’s a family member — one that loves you unconditionally,” Cobb said.

Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine offers a pet loss support hotline 6:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays during the school year, and 6:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays during the summer. For support, call (517) 432-2696.