“Tomorrow will be my first day ever without him. I’m going to miss Jasper so, so much… Today was the hardest day of my life.” Marjorie Blain Parker, Jasper’s Day
Pets can enrich the lives of children – they are playmates, friends and sources of unconditional love. They teach responsibility, compassion and caring for another living creature. However, due to the shorter lifespan of most pets, children may also experience the loss that their inevitable death will bring. Although difficult, this loss can provide valuable lessons on death, grief, coping and empathy.
Grief is the process of letting go – and the stronger our attachment to a person, animal, place, or object, the more difficult it can be to let go. Learning positive ways to deal with our emotions is important for our mental and physical health – and the younger we learn these techniques the better. Frank Ascione, developmental psychologist and renowned researcher of the human-animal bond acknowledges that “the loss of a pet… is not only an emotionally wrenching event for a child but also an opportunity to learn the appropriate expression of grief and mourning.” He adds that sensitive parents can facilitate this process by validating the children’s sense of loss. As teachers, we can also help support a positive learning process by being compassionate and encouraging appropriate expression of grief.
What makes pets different from people when dealing with grief?
“I knew that I loved him as much as I did Mama and Papa, maybe in some ways even a little bit more.” Fred Gibson, Old Yeller, Ch.6.
Grief from the loss of a pet for some children (and adults) can feel as strong as the loss of a relative. The grief response will vary depending on the age of the student along with other factors. It can be difficult to determine the strength of the human-animal bond and difficult to predict the level of grief. A study by Joann Jarolmen of children, adolescents, and adults who had lost a pet within the last year showed that although adults reported a stronger attachment to their pet than young people, children and adolescents expressed more grief over the loss of their pet.
A lack of understanding or support from family, friends and classmates can also increase or the grief response. Comments such as “it’s just a pet” or “you can just get a new one” can impair the grieving process. David Balk, researcher of thanatology (scientific study of death) acknowledges that “Our society often minimizes child-pet relationships and thus fails to adequately support children’s bereavement over these important losses. Well-intentioned caregivers or teachers often lack the necessary information and guidance for assisting children as they maneuver through this special type of bereavement.”
What teachers can do:
- Encourage students to be open about their feels. Just listening with patience and understanding will help to validate the student’s feelings.
- As their teacher you may be in a good position to observe any changes in their normal activities such as lack of attention, withdrawal from other students, irritability, etc. These can be signs that something is going on and more could be done to help the student cope. Let the school counselor and parents/guardians know. Communication with family and other teachers is important.
- Suggest students express their feelings through art, writing, or creating a memorial.
- Read books on pet loss (we recommend a few in our Recommended Reading and address this topic in our Grade 3 AnimalTales package). Discuss the positive ways that the characters in the stories are dealing with their grief and ways to be supportive of others going through grief. You don’t need to wait until a loss occurs to address these issues.
- Model compassion – students learn more about behaviour from what you do than what you say. If the topic of loss and grief come up – discuss it with compassion and understanding acknowledging that everyone experiences it differently, and that’s ok.
“Barney is in the ground and he’s helping grow flowers. You know, I said, that’s a pretty nice job for a cat.” – Judith Viorst, The Tenth Good Thing about Barney
Ascione, F.R. (2005). Children & Animals: Exploring the Roots of Kindness & Cruelty. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue
Balk, D. (2010). Children’s Encounters with Death, Bereavement, and Coping. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company
Frank, J. (n.d). How to help your child cope with the loss of a pet. Retrieved from http://cpancf.com/articles_files/helpingchildpetloss.asp
Jarolmen, J. (1998). A comparison of grief reaction of children and adults: Focusing on pet loss and bereavement. Omega, 37, 133-150
Williams, B.R. (2014). How to deal with grief. [webinar]