It is not unusual to think of your pony, dog, cat, bird, hamster, or ferret as a member of your family. Children in particular have special bonds to their animal friends who love and protect them. When your animal family member is facing death or has died, the ramifications are far-reaching and varied according to each individual’s place in the family. Everyone’s relationship with the pet is different, and thus each person’s grief will differ as well. Very young children do not have the concept of “permanence” and do not understand the finality of physical death. Because of children’s developmental stages and inherent resilience, many parents are unsure about what to expect and how they can help their young children. It is important to think about what the child has seen and what he/she has been told by others. It also is important to imagine what others will say to the child when they learn about the pet’s death. Clearly witnessing the death of the family pet when struck by a car or attacked by other animals deserves a response other than what might be given when the pet goes to the veterinarian and never comes home again.
Adolescents and young adults do understand terminal illness and death. They also have some understanding of “euthanasia”. Family members at this stage may be facing their first experience with death. Parents and grandparents may be living, and the first real loss is that of the childhood pet. It is important to understand that adolescents and young adults may mourn the loss of their earlier childhood with the death of their childhood animal friend. Issues of separation and independence loom for this age group, and the pet’s death cannot be separated from these other family dynamics.
Parents who live together and single parents face a range of emotions with the death of the family pet. The pet may have predated the existence of the family unit and is a final reminder of another time and place. The pet may have outlasted a marriage and serves as a touchstone for the past. For mothers, frequently pets are a bit like little children who don’t quite grow up. Feeding, exercising, veterinary care, and home nursing all seem to be part of the relationship for many mothers and adult single women. They also are close companions if not confidants as well.
Fathers and adult single men may also do a lot of the nurturing of the pet. However, it is not unusual to find a “buddy“ relationship with the animal that has been reflected in running, jogging, hunting, and even outdoor work. Retired adults may have one of the most significant bonds with their animal family members. The children are grown up; the responsibilities of the workplace have disappeared or diminished. Even the spouse or lifetime partner may have passed on. The beloved pet has become the most important relationship of all. That pet’s death is not only devastating but reminds us of our own mortality.
We are all different and we all grieve a bit differently. It is important to take into account where we are in our life span as we mourn and as we help others with their grief.
Compliments of Mary Knipmeyer’s Pet Loss Counseling, 301-421-1066.