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Children and Pet Loss




I am not sure I will ever fully understand the depth and intensity of my feeling for this little guy. Nor am I sure why I took his loss so hard. Didn’t I realize he wasn’t going to last forever? Didn’t I know the typical Lab only lives 10 to 12 years? Did I expect to have him for the rest of my life…?

Of course I realized all that. It was more a case of losing him so soon—not being ready for his passing. Buddy sure as hell wasn’t!

Why didn’t I just try to “put it behind me and move on…”?

I don’t know that either. My grief was a connection to Buddy. Putting the pain “behind me” was a betrayal of my love for him. I couldn’t do that. Just as I couldn’t leave his ashes behind when we went on vacation for fear that the house would burn down and I’d have nothing at all left of him.

Perhaps the only truly remarkable thing about Buddy and our relationship was the remarkable change he brought about in me! Here was this dirty, scruffy, abandoned, undernourished dog—no status symbol he—a little mutt who crawled into my heart and dug himself a place in it like he used to dig in our yard—never, ever to come out. He taught me to value the welfare of someone else as I do my own (!).

Thank you, my little boy. May you (and I, as well) now rest in peace. I am sorry it took me so long to tell your story. Whether finally, finally completed or not (I’m sure I’ll think of other stuff to add…), I am happy with the result and I hope you are, too.

Until we meet again, Buddy Boy. You are always in mommy’s and daddy’s hearts.


Popo Rose
"... what we have enjoyed, we can never lose ... all that we love deeply becomes a part of us."

Helen Keller


"Death ends a life, not a relationship."

Jack Lemmon


If I know only one thing for certain, it’s this:without them I would be something different, something less, someone else.

(Author Unknown)


Bear Bear
If tears could build a stairway, and memories a lane, I would walk right up to Heaven, to bring you home again.

(Author Unknown)

Children and Pet Loss

Understanding the Child’s Attachment

and the Significance of the Loss

by Marty Tousley, RN

When a child’s pet dies, there is a tendency to minimize both the loss and the child’s grief, especially if the pet was very small. We characterize the death of a child’s gerbil or goldfish as a sort of emotional dress rehearsal for the “real” loss of a relative or close friend. We tell ourselves that kids are more resilient than adults, that they don’t grieve with the same intensity as adults, that they’ll “get over it” more quickly.

No matter what the type of animal, a child’s attachment to a pet is genuine and real. As a playmate, confidante and ally, the family pet is one of the most steady, accepting, non demanding, nonjudgmental figures in the child’s life. In the ever-changing world of a child, a pet’s affection never varies; the pet accepts the child no matter what--and caring for the pet lifts the child’s self-esteem by giving him or her a sense of importance and responsibility.

Death of a pet is often the child’s first real encounter with a major loss. Suddenly friendship, companionship, loyalty, support and unconditional love are replaced with overwhelming and unfamiliar feelings of loss, confusion, emptiness, loneliness, fear and grief.

Far from being a dress rehearsal then, for most children pet loss is a profoundly painful experience. Children who have lost their pets experience feelings of deep sadness and regret--and a pet’s being given away can be just as stressful for the child as any other type of loss.

Recognizing How Children Grieve

Certainly children grieve as deeply as adults; they simply express their grief differently. Because their attention span is shorter, for example, they may move in and out of grief, and the symptoms of grief may come and go, varying in intensity. Their response is based on the knowledge and skills available to them at the time of the loss.

Having had less prior experience with crisis and its consequences, children’s repertoire of coping skills is simpler, their capacity to confront the reality of loss more limited, and their ability to find meaning in life’s crises less mature. If surprised or embarrassed by the intensity of their grief, they may try to hide it or disguise it. Adults are wise to watch and listen --to tune in to their children, to be there for them, and if unsure what’s going on, to ask!

Feelings may include confusion, fear, sadness, anger, pain, distress separation anxiety (clinging), and guilt, especially if the pet’s death was a result of the child’s real or imagined neglect. As they search for ways to understand and master the loss, children will express feelings through play. They may draw pictures or tell stories, or reenact the death by staging a funeral with a Teddy bear or by burying a doll in the sandbox.

Children also express themselves by acting out their feelings (biting, hitting, kicking, throwing tantrums, breaking rules, picking fights with siblings). Behaviors may include difficulty concentrating (leading to learning problems at school), nightmares or sleeplessness, withdrawal from activities and people, psychosomatic complaints (fatigue, sore throat, headache, stomach ache) , and regressing temporarily to an earlier, easier stage of development.

Understanding the Child's Concept of Death

A child's concept of death varries with the cognitive and emotional level of development of the child; grief is experienced and expressed in different developmental stages.

Toddlerhood (0-2)

Even children under the age of two can feel and respond to family stress (by crying, clinging, withdrawing or regressing).  They find reassurance through hugs, cuddling, having special time with the parent, and sticking to their normal routines.

Preschool (2 to 5)

Since love needs at this age oridinarily are met by caregivers, the pet will be missed as a playmate, but not as a love object.  Death is perceived as a temporary and reversible state, neither permanent nor universal (like Snow White's deep sleep, or as a tree loses its leaves in the fall,  only to bloom again in the spring).

Early School (5 to 9)

Death is seen permanent and the child understands that a pet who has died will not return.  Although the causes of death are understood (cancer, trauma, poison), there is a magical quality to the thinking in children at this age.  They believe that death is not inevitable -- that is, that death can be avoided, or even wished upon another.  They may think of death as punishment for their own misdeeds or evil thoughts, or they may see a cause-and-effect relationship.  Did this death happen because of something I did or failed to do?  Will it happen to me (or to someone else I love)? and Who will take care of me if or when it does happen?

School Age (From age 10 up)

By now youngsters know that death comes to all living things, and when death occurs, all bodily functions stop.  They know that death can happen suddenly or gradually, and that it is final, permanent and inevitable.  Not surprisingly, adolescents may take longer to resolve their grief, since their developmental tasks of separating from parents and rebelling against adult authority figures may make them feel at once alienated from adults and quite attached to their pets, who have loved them so unconditionally and uncritically.

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