Psychologist: Children's Grief Over the Loss of Pets Must Be Taken Seriously

Written by Henrik Rothen

Mar.22 - 2024 11:09 AM CET

Photo: Agria
Photo: Agria
Many parents are uncertain about how much their child should be involved when a pet's life is coming to an end. How much does the child understand about death? Should the child be present at euthanasia? And how can you best support your child in processing their grief? Agria Pet Insurance has created an online grief universe with guidance for parents and children who have a pet in its final life stage or are grieving over a pet that has passed away.

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In many homes, children and animals live side by side as part of the family. However, the lifespan of family pets is short, and the loss can often be a child's first encounter with death. Children's grief should be taken seriously and not trivialized, believes psychologist:

  • "Children emotionally attach to their family pets in the same way they do to other family members. In some cases, a child may even be particularly attached to the animal. At the same time, younger children may struggle to understand the difference between life and death and the finality of death. It's a gradual developmental process to understand what being dead means. Therefore, it is important not to overlook the child's natural grief when the animal is no longer part of the family," explains Kristine Jensen de López, who is a professor of developmental psychology and part of the Center for Human-Animal Psychology at Aalborg University. She adds:

  • "Grief is the reaction to the loss of someone you love. Contrary to what many may think, there is emotionally no big difference whether it is a human or an animal one is grieving over. Most children will adapt to the loss of a family member – whether the family member has two or four legs - within a couple of years. But some children may struggle with the grieving process, risking the development of social and emotional problems," she emphasizes.

Supporting Parents in Supporting Children

"Because we know that especially children and adolescents can struggle with the grief over the loss of a pet, we have put a large focus on exactly that group on our new online portal, 'The Last Hug'," explains Tine Stabell, CEO of Agria Pet Insurance.

She explains that the portal is dedicated to helping pet owners understand and process their grief after the loss of a pet in a healthy and constructive way. The platform contains articles, podcasts, and online tools, all developed to meet the needs of those preparing for or experiencing grief over the loss of a pet.

"We aim to provide support for parents, so they can better help their children of all ages with grief processing. Therefore, the new website also contains articles on how you as a parent ensure that your child does not feel guilt or responsibility for the pet's death, and articles discussing whether children should witness the euthanasia of the family's pet," explains Tine Stabell.

Facts: How to Help Your Child in the Grieving Process

  1. Talk About Grief: Conversations about grief help the child put words to their feelings about what has happened. This can help them understand that grief is a natural emotion, and prevent the problematization of these feelings.

  2. Share Good Memories: It's beneficial for the child to talk about the pet that has passed away. Share stories about the day you got the pet, funny experiences, and about its personality and special qualities.

  3. Something to Remember the Pet By: The child may want to keep something that belonged to the pet, such as a food bowl, bed, or collar. These kinds of physical memories can be a support for the child in the grieving process.

  4. Hold a Memorial Ceremony: A joint activity in the family's grieving process can be to hold a memorial ceremony. Plan together how the ceremony should proceed, and respect if the child does not want to participate.

  5. A "Back-Up" During Euthanasia: If the child participates in the euthanasia, it's a good idea to have a family member or a close friend the child knows who is ready to take a walk or take care of the child if it all suddenly becomes too overwhelming. Then the parents can stay with the pet, while there is another adult to take care of the child.

  6. Respect the Child's Wishes: Let the child decide how much they want to be involved in the euthanasia process or other grief-related activities.

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