Helping children say goodbye

The death of a family pet is often a child’s first significant experience of death and the emotional trauma associated with his loss should not be under estimated, says The Blue Cross.

The Pet Bereavement Support Service (PBSS), a telephone helpline and email service run by The Blue Cross and Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS), receives a growing number of calls and emails every year from distressed children who have lost a pet.

The trained volunteers provide reassurance and comfort to younger callers who, in many cases, feel unable to communicate with school friends and family about their feelings of loss.

Jo-Ann Dono, head of PBSS says: “Children often form very strong bonds with their pets and losing a pet feels like losing a best friend or a memberof his family.

“Overwhelming feelings of sadness, anger, resentment and guilt are common grief reactions and it is important not to dismiss or trivialise them.

“Speaking to a trained befriender can help children talk through their feelings and realise what they are experiencing is completely normal.”

The Blue Cross has produced a support leaflet entitled Children & Pet Bereavement to help guide anyone supporting a child who has lost a pet.

It explains how children of different ages commonly react to the loss of a pet, how to help a child cope, and when is the best time to get another pet – as well as recommending a range of books which may be helpful.

Here are a few useful tips from The Blue Cross on how to help your child cope at this difficult time:

  • Always be honest about the death. Don’t pretend the animal has “gone missing” if in fact it has died
  • Use language that the child will understand – “dead” or “died” is more appropriate than “put to sleep” which may cause confusion
  • Make sure the child doesn’t hear about the pet’s death from someone they don’t know
  • Don’t underestimate their feelings. Encourage the child to talk about the pet and express their emotions
  • Don’t be afraid to show your own feelings of sadness
  • Give the child a chance to say a last goodbye with a burial or similar ceremony if they want to

BUPA psychiatrist, Dr Sally Cubbin MRCPsych, MSc,DCH says: “It is important not to hold back information. Let your child know if a pet is seriously ill and faced with possible death. Some adults mistakenly believe they can protect children from these painful experiences.

“It is important that adults recognise that the death of a pet is a highly significant event for their child. It is the time that a child learns that death is real, final and natural and most important of all, a time to say goodbye.”

Copies of The Blue Cross’s Children & Pet Bereavement leaflet are available by calling (tel: 01993 825539) or by visiting www.bluecross.org.uk

The PBSS pet bereavement helpline (tel: 0800 096 6606) is open seven days a weekfrom 8.30am to 8.30pm or via email: pbssmail@bluecross.org.uk

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