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Pet Loss and Youngsters: It's the "Worst Day of Their Lives"

A new essay is a must read for everyone who has kids and a companion animal.

An essay in the New York Times by Juli Fraga called When a Pet Dies, Helping Children Through the ‘Worst Day of Their Lives’ caught my eye, and I received a number of emails about it and the topic of pet loss and youngsters in general. I'm not an expert in this field, but I learned quite a lot by reading it and the research study on which it is based by Canisius College professor Joshua Russell titled 'Everything has to die one day:' children’s explorations of the meanings of death in human-animal-nature relationships published in the journal Environmental Education Research. The abstract for Dr. Russell's essay that is not yet available online reads:

Children’s experiences of death are a potentially vital component of their developing sense of relatedness to non-human others and nature. Environmental education theory and practice would benefit from a broader understanding of how children view death and loss within ecological systems as well as within human–animal–nature relationships, but such research is currently lacking. This paper focuses on children’s own descriptions of the deaths of companion animals—a largely ignored category of non-human others in environmental education—and explores three emergent, ecological themes. These themes indicate that death experiences within the home space are significant in ecological learning.

Pixabay free images
Source: Pixabay free images

Ms. Fraga's summary is an excellent one and is readily available online, so here are a few snippets to whet your appetite for more.

In a study of 12 children ages 6 to 13 who had lost a pet, published in the journal Environmental Education Research, Dr. Russell found that even years after the pet’s death, some children still described the loss as “the worst day of their lives.” He also discovered that children come up with unique ways to rationalize their pet’s passing and that the way a pet dies influences how children grieve.

Dr. Russell also found that children "have a distinct sense of existential fairness around whether or not an animal lived until an appropriate age,” and were more likely to accept their pet's death when it was expected and realized that their companion animal would have a short life. However, when a pet died suddenly and unexpectedly or tragically, kids found it harder to accept.

Ms. Fraga also notes, "One way young children may express their grief is through play. After the loss of a pet, they may pretend, for example, that a stuffed cat or dog became ill and passed away. Parents can help their children through the grieving process by actively participating in this type of imaginary play." She also provides references for a number of books that can help adults and kids get through the grieving process, and notes that it's important to be honest about what happened.

It may also be important for some youngsters to have a goodbye ritual. Dr. Abigail Marks, a clinical psychologist who specializes in childhood grief, notes that such rituals can be “a way to process the loss and to honor the role that the pet had in your family.”

I learned a lot from Ms. Fraga's essay and Dr. Russell's research paper. I highly recommend sharing Ms. Fraga's piece and Dr. Russell's when it is available. Given the millions upon millions of companion animals with whom people around the world share their homes, understanding how youngsters deal with grief from the loss of their friends is essential. I well remember being incredibly heartbroken at a loss for answers when I learned that an animal I knew passed on, and I had loads of difficult questions for my parents and other adults.

Note: Additional information on pet loss and children can be found here. For more information on how to deal with the loss of a companion animals please see the excellent Psychology Today essays by Adam Clark and Jessica Pierce.

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential will be published in early 2018. Marc's homepage is marcbekoff.com.

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