Helping Children Grieve the Loss of a Cat
As adults we can sometimes struggle significantly with the loss of a beloved pet. When we have children who are also grieving, it can be hard to stay strong or know the right things to say or do when we are grieving ourselves. As many parents will know, animals become much more than 'pets' to our children. Animals play a huge role in positive childhood development, even shaping them and the adults they will become, so the emotional, social and physical connection is very strong. Death, especially that of such a close and loving companion, can be traumatic and confusing for a child as they try and make sense of where their best friend is. This can place extra strain on our own grief as we try to explain that their little friend won't be coming home, something we will too be trying to come to terms with.
The death of a cat can create a sense of loss for adults and produces a typical chain of emotions. The stages of grief are typically denial, sadness, depression, guilt, anger, and closure. However, the effects on children vary widely depending on their age and maturity level with their reaction generally being determined by their ability to understand death.
Although children tend to grieve for shorter periods, their grief is no less intense than what we experience as adults. Children also tend to come back to the subject repeatedly out of confusion or looking for reassurance, so extreme patience is required when dealing with the grieving child.
Children under 4 years old do not tend to have an understanding of death, and consider it to be a form of sleep. Simply by explaining their cat will not be returning, but that this has nothing to do with anything they may have said or done, will most likely cause temporary mild distress which they quickly recover from.
Older children up to ages 7 do have some understanding of death, but tend to see it as a temporary measure. They can also see death as something which is imminent and can begin to fear it, as well as blame themselves believing it was their fault. Any self blame, or fear that they might also die, should be refuted in several brief discussions.
Children between 7 and 10 are most sensitive to loss and can behave in concerning ways, such as the development of school problems, learning problems, antisocial behaviour, hypochondria, aggression, withdrawal, over attentiveness, and/or clingy behaviour. These reactions could be imminent, or take a few weeks or months to manifest. Children in this age bracket are at the stage where they understand death is final, but do not quite manage grief in the same way adults do. They will be at the fragile stage where they are coming to terms with their understanding of death and what it means, and be learning how to handle such emotions. Perhaps speaking to their teacher will help the school have an understanding of any out of character behaviour, and they can assist in the grieving process for the child where they see it necessary to step in.
Children over 10 generally understand death, and can grieve in ways similar to adults. Some adolescents can also exhibit various forms of denial. Although they may not display emotions in an outward way, they may still be experiencing severe grief which does not publically manifest itself.
Remember, every child is different and each will have a bond with their cat which is unique to them. Allow the child to work through their grief in their own way, and encourage them to talk freely about their cat when they need to while giving hugs and reassurance.
Age depending, discuss death and grief honestly, but refrain from using words which might confuse them, such as discussing particular invasive treatment or euthanasia, or things which might put fear in to them and affect them in their day to day lives as some children take certain things very literally. Let them know their friend passed peacefully, was not scared and is no longer in any pain. As you would with any tough issue, try to gauge how much information kids need to hear based on their age, maturity level, and life experience. Never tell them their friend 'ran away' or 'went on a trip', as this will confuse them and could lead to them believing it is down to something they did.
Don't feel compelled to hide your own sadness about losing a pet either. Showing how you feel and talking about it openly sets an example for children and can validate their feelings which they may otherwise be confused about. Show that it's OK to feel sad when you lose a loved one, to talk about your feelings, and to cry when you feel sad. It's comforting to children to know that they're not alone in feeling sad and it is a shared grief. Share stories about them and remember the good times, but also express how difficult it was to say goodbye.
Include children in things such as memorial making, and ask they get involved in saying goodbye. Children need closure just as we do, although perhaps in slightly different ways. Allowing children to be involved in burials or in the creation of memorials will help them come to terms with death as being final, but also help them gain some peace and understanding of how to manage their loss.
Help children to find special ways to remember a pet. Write a prayer or draw pictures together, or offer thoughts on what the pet meant to each family member. Share stories of your pet's funny moments and smile together. You could do a project too, like making a scrapbook. Offer lots of loving hugs and reassurance, and talk about your cat often and with love. Let your child know that, while the pain will go away, the happy memories you both share will always remain.
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Further reading from Blue Cross
Further reading from Cats Protection
Further reading from AnimalFriends