Whether your child’s goldfish, Guppy, has been found upside down in the fish bowl or your beloved cat has reached his last life, the loss of a pet can be traumatic for children and adults. It’s likely your child has grown attached to her pet and does not know how to cope with the loss.
Nannies have the opportunity to not only nurture and support children during this difficult time, but also teach children about the process of grief.
Grief is one of the most normal and natural emotions that we can feel; yet, it is often one of the most misunderstood, according to the Argus Institute at Colorado State University. Gail Bishop, clinical coordinator of the institute, whose mission is to strengthen veterinarian-client-patient communication and support relationships between people and their companion animals, says children experience grief in a very roller coaster fashion.
“The stages of grief can offer us a framework in which to understand grief, but it also does us an injustice since the process is not sequential but instead very dynamic,” she says.
It’s crucial that parents and nannies refrain from minimizing the grief the child experiences. Responses such as “big boys don’t cry” and “you still have other pets” suggest that your children have no right to be upset or distressed by the loss. “These kinds of responses can make a griever feel guilty or ashamed about being upset and reinforce the notion that grieving is wrong,” says Bishop.
The Manifestations of Grief
Your child, while coping with the loss of her beloved pet, will experience a variety of emotions. It’s helpful for the nanny to recognize some of these emotions and the behaviors associated with each one.
According to the Argus Institute, Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, the manifestations of grief may appear in the following forms:
- Physical: Your child may experience crying, stomach aches or nausea, restlessness, fatigue, body aches and sleep and appetite disturbances during this phase
- Intellectual: Denial and a sense of confusion kick in during the intellectual manifestation of grief. Your child will experience a need to reminisce about the loved pet and feel preoccupied by the loss
- Emotional: Sadness, anger and irritability are common emotions your child may be experiencing, in addition to a feeling of hopelessness and resentment
- Social: Your child may experience this stage of grief by alienating himself or withdrawing or rejecting others
- Spiritual: This phase is the classic bargaining stage when the grieving child searches for meaning of the death
Helping Your Child Cope
While it is likely your child will experience denial, bargaining and anger, it may not be in the sequential order many assume.
One of the most important actions a nanny can take is to help the child understand that grief is a very healthy psychological and physical response that requires expression and acknowledgement. “Attempts to suppress feelings of grief can sometimes actually prolong the healing process,” says Bishop.
One of the best ways to help a child deal with grief and the loss of a pet is to help him understand that it is normal and that emotions can be expressed without judgment. The Argus Institute cites that a grieving person needs acknowledgement, validation and support.
When your child is crying, acknowledge that you understand that he misses his pet. Validate his feelings by letting him know that what he is feeling is very real and valid. Offer a supportive environment, too, so he knows that it is safe and perfectly normal to want to talk about what he misses about his pet.
If the death of a pet is looming or has just occurred, take the opportunity to model appropriate expression of feelings, recommends the Argus Institute. In all areas of development, the ways in which a parent or nanny processes and displays grief will greatly impact their children’s ability to grieve.
“It is an important time for parents and other adults to teach children how to express grief in emotionally healthy ways free of shame or embarrassment, lessons carried into adulthood,” says Bishop. “This not only helps the child identify what they are feeling themselves, but creates a sense of safety about experiencing emotions and expressing them appropriately.”