Parents and adults can use some counseling techniques to help children and adolescents cope with the loss of a pet. Picture books and religious belief may also help.
Counseling Techniques for Pet Loss
Experts recommend that the person bearing the sad news -- preferably a close family member -- approach the child as soon as possible and share accurate details in a private location and in a calm manner.
The first step is to acknowledge the loss. The child should be encouraged and allowed to talk about his or her pet and the nature or circumstances of the loss (e.g., illness, accident, or runaway).
Unlike loss involving people, the easy accessibility of other animals as pet “replacements” makes grieving seem somehow unnecessary or unjustified. The society tends to ignore, discount, or trivialize the impact of pet loss, thus some kids and adolescents may repress their feelings. It is therefore important to provide validation that such feelings are normal.
It also helps if parent or counselor has knowledge of the stages of grief, and explains to the child how the grief process relates to the death of a pet.
The child's grief process usually begins with disbelief and denial, followed by feelings of anger. Anger is frequently directed at the veterinarian, particularly in cases of pet death following illness, because he or she may be blamed for not doing enough to prevent the death.
After anger subsides, feelings of guilt, depression, and sorrow will typically set in, representing a natural grief reaction. At this point, the child might be preoccupied with memories of the pet. The final phase of the grieving process involves resolution and acceptance of the loss and in many instances consideration of getting a new pet.
Besides explaining the grief stages, researchers say that a burial ceremony may help to bring closure to the grieving process.
Picture Book as Coping Mechanism
Picture book therapy can be a powerful tool for helping children identify internal and external resources that can help them develop coping strategies.
Children are sometimes able to identify personally with the main character’s needs, wishes, and frustrations. Also, they often experience an emotional release through abreaction and catharsis. Ultimately, they may be able to note the characters’ coping strategies and apply those strategies to managing their own problems.
Not every picture book is suitable for use as a therapy tool. There are a few factors that parents and counselors need to consider when selecting the book:
First, story content and characters need to portray fears with which children can identify.
Second, those fears must be successfully resolved or addressed in the story.
Finally, the story must clearly convey covert or overt coping skills as well as internal or external resources, so that children can relate these strategies to their own fears.
As an example, the picture book “Always and Forever” by Alan Durant is suitable for pet loss counseling.
This book tells the story of four friends -- Mole, Fox, Hare, and Otter -- who live together in a house in the woods, sharing the household responsibilities. Then, Fox dies and Mole, Hare, and Otter are devastated. They feel they will never get over their great sadness. How can life go on without him?
Then one day Squirrel comes to visit. She reminds Fox's family of all the funny things he used to do. And as the friends share dinner and tell stories, they realize at last that in their hearts and memories, Fox is still with them, and he will be -- always and forever.
Religious Belief as Coping Mechanism
Researchers say that people with religious belief can better cope with the loss of a pet.
In a 2016 research report, researchers say they recruited 219 owners of deceased pets, and examined the relationship between religion and sorrow.
The results showed that the vast majority of the participants believed that their pets’ souls reside in a better place and that they will reunite with them in the afterlife. A sizeable percentage also engaged in positive religious coping and afterlife prayers to deal with their loss.
A sizable percentage of the participants incorporated their deceased pets into their religious beliefs, prayers and positive expressions of religious coping to deal with their loss (e.g., sought God’s love and care).
Additionally, more than 68 percent of the participants believed that they would reunite with their pets when they die and prayed for this reunification as a coping strategy.
On the other hand, researchers also found that a smaller percentage of participants believed that their pet’s soul was in a worse place (e.g., hell) and engaged in negative forms of religious coping (e.g., felt punished by God for lack of devotion).
Thus, parents or counsellors should be aware that although some aspects of religion can be very helpful, some dimensions, such as negative religious coping, reflect a spiritual struggle that is often tied to psychological distress.
Brown, Brenda H., Herbert C. Richards, and Carol A. Wilson. “Pet Bonding and Pet Bereavement Among Adolescents.” Journal of Counseling & Development, 1996, vol. 74, pp. 75-79.
Lee, Sherman A. “Religion and pet loss: afterlife beliefs, religious coping, prayer and their associations with sorrow.” British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 2016, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 123–129.
Mercurio, Mia Lynn, and Abigail McNamee. “Healing Words, Healing Hearts: Using Children's Literature to Cope with the Loss of a Pet.” Childhood Education, 2006, vol. 82, no. 3, pp. 153-160.
Sharkin, Bruce S. and Audrey S. Bahrick. “Pet Loss: Implications for Counselors.” Journal of Counseling & Development, 1990, vol. 68, pp. 66-68.