How To Help Children Deal With The Loss Of A Pet

Last weekend was a sad weekend. For a week our two-year-old guinea pig, Barry had been fighting an Upper Respiratory Infection (URI) and despite medicine from the vets and syringe feeding him critical care, on Saturday he passed away in my arms!

cuddles with Barry the black long haired guinea pig
Cuddles with Barry after feeding him critical care food

I’ll never forget telling my 13-year-old and hearing her sob “Don’t leave me, Barry. Please don’t leave me!” as I gently placed his tiny body in her arms for the last time and broke the news that he had died. This was the 3rd guinea pig we had lost in a year!

barry the black long haired guinea pig, bubble the roan long haired guinea pig and squeak the white long haired guinea pig
Our late guinea pigs. Barry, Bubble and Squeak

Last year, when we lost our first guinea pig Bubble it was a lot harder to deal with. Bubble was Becky’s baby and she was an elderly guinea pig aged 7 (the average lifespan of a guinea pig is 5-8 years). We didn’t even know she was poorly and we woke one morning to find her lifeless in her house. None of the children had really had to deal with grief before and it hit them all hard, none more so than Becky. Bubble was her piggie and it was just after her birthday! Then, just before Christmas and Ruby’s birthday, we lost Bubble’s sister Squeak who also died in my arms of a URI. Bubble’s death affected Becky as she was her baby and Squeak’s passing affected Ruby as she was her baby.

Each girl dealt with the death differently. Becky was 12 and she suffered from depression and even had bouts of where life felt too much and she wanted to kill herself. We spent a lot of time talking and we buried Bubble in nanny’s garden so that she could visit her whenever she wanted to. She has pictures of her and Bubble on her wall and we had honest discussions to help her understand death and to help her grieve. Becky is the kind of child who bottles things up and I didn’t actually realise how much Bubble’s death had affected her until she began saying she wanted to die and to kill herself. It was important to help her realise that she wasn’t being silly or a baby for grieving for a guinea pig, I also had to help her realise that it wasn’t her fault that she hadn’t realised that Bubble was poorly and that guinea pigs will hide when they’re poorly which is what Bubble did. I also reminded her that she had given Bubble a long and happy life full of love and the fact that Bubble had lived to reach a grand old age of 7 was a testament to the great care and love Becky gave to her guinea pigs.

white longhaired guinea pig
Squeak’s final cuddles, taken shortly before she passed away

When Squeak died, it was Ruby’s turn to take it hard. Luckily we realised that Squeak was dying, she had been suffering from a URI and hadn’t been eating. With syringe feeding and medicine she seemed to be getting better when Becky found her and was concerned because Squeak’s neck was soaking wet, like she was dribbling whilst drinking or had been sick (guinea pigs can not vomit) which I later learnt was a sign of heart failure. I knew there wasn’t much chance of Squeak getting through the night and even though I spoke to the vets they said there was nothing they could do until the morning. I made sure I took Squeak to Ruby and we spoke about how poorly she was and that the chances were she wouldn’t make it through the night and I allowed Ruby to hug and kiss her goodbye, just in case. It turned out to be a good thing I did as about an hour later Squeak passed away in my arms as I stroked her and told her it was ok for her to go and how much we all loved her and thanked her for being such a good friend to Ruby. The next day we took her to nanny’s and buried her alongside Bubble and we allowed Ruby to place her in the grave and to say a few words. Ruby wears her heart on her sleeve and this helped her deal with Squeak’s death as she was able to open up and talk to us about how much she missed her. She hung pictures around her room and even wrote a poem with pictures for Squeak.

If roses grow in Heaven,
Lord pick a bunch for me.
And place them in my Guinea Pigs arms,
and tell her they’re from me!.
Please place a kiss upon her cheek,
and hold her in your arms.
Because remembering her is easy,
I do it every day.
But there’s an ache within my heart,
that’ll never go away

picture of girl and her guinea pig and poem
Ruby’s poem for Squeak

Because we had set the scene with the loss of Bubble and Squeak it made dealing with Barry’s loss that much easier for the children to deal with. Each child had the chance for a final cuddle a kiss before we held another funeral and buried him alongside his girlfriends, Bubble and Squeak. It’s also made it easier to discuss getting another guinea pig as guinea pigs need company and now we are left with just our 6-month-old boar Ozzy. The breeder we got Ozzy from has a 2-week old baby boar that we are hoping to bring home and hopefully bond with Ozzy when he reaches 8 weeks old. My girls are also hoping to get a couple of baby girl guinea pigs as well but don’t tell their dad!

flowers and stones on a guinea pigs grave
Bubble’s Grave

This shows how important it is to help children deal with their grief when a pet dies. Learning how to deal with the grief of losing a beloved pet can help them deal with the death and the grief of a loved one.

How to help children with their grief.

For most children, just like my girls, pets are more than just animals. They are members of the family, their best friend and even their baby. Pets are often the first to greet children in the morning or after school, their comforter when they’re feeling sad, their best friend and companion when they’re feeling lonely.

One of the most difficult parts about losing a pet is breaking the bad news. Try to do so one-to-one in a place where they feel safe and comfortable and not easily distracted. Use your own judgement and knowledge of your child to know how much information they need to know. All children are different and have different maturity levels and life experience.

Give them chance to remember their pet and to say goodbye. For us, it was holding a little funeral and saying goodbye as we buried them in nanny’s garden. Of course, my 4-year-old doesn’t quite understand death and keeps asking when are we going back to nanny’s house to get Barry and Bubble and Squeak to bring them home again. She doesn’t quite understand the permanence of death, but that’s completely natural for a child her age. To her, they are just sleeping in the ground.

If your pet was old or had a lingering illness, consider talking to your children before the death occurs. If you have to put your pet to sleep, you need to use your judgement of how much they can understand. When I was 11 our 19-year-old cat died and my parents told me that the vet had given him an injection to make him better but he was too old and too tired to fight and he went to sleep. I didn’t actually realise until we had to put our dog to sleep when I was 16 that that is what they had done with our cat. You could try telling your children things like;

  • The vets have done everything that they can
  • That your pet would never get better
  • That this is the kindest way to take the pet’s pain away
  • That the pet will die peacefully, without feeling hurt or scared.

Again this all depends on the child’s age and maturity level and the questions they ask will help you decide whether to use a clear and simple explanation for what’s going to happen. It’s ok to use words like “death” and “dying” or something like “the vet will give (insert pets name) an injection and he/she will go to sleep and then their heart will stop beating.” It’s important to give children a chance to say goodbye beforehand and some older children who are emotionally mature enough might want to be there to comfort your pet.

One thing to be careful about, especially if you decide to euthanize your pet, is saying that your pet “went to sleep” or “was put to sleep” or that “God took your pet”. Young children especially tend to interpret events literally and these phrases could scare a child into believing that God could take them, their parents or their siblings or they could be scared of going to sleep in case they don’t wake up or God takes them, just like what happened to their pet.

If your pet’s death was sudden, calmly explain what has happened. Be brief and let your child’s questions guide how much you can tell them.

Whilst it might be tempting to lie to your child by telling them that your pet ran away or went on a trip isn’t a good idea. It won’t help with the sadness but could prolong the grief as the child will keep hoping that your pet would return home. Plus, when the truth comes out, which one day it will, your child will be angry and might even hate you for lying to them about something so important.

When your child asks what happens to your pet after it dies, draw on your own understanding and beliefs. We told my children that Barry had been reunited with Bubble and Squeak and that they were probably having lots of fun chasing and playing and popcorning (when a guinea pig jumps for joy) all over Heaven, as this is our belief. For some children, an honest “I don’t know” can be an acceptable answer.

Like anyone dealing with a loss, children usually feel a variety of emotions besides sadness after the death of a pet. They might experience loneliness, anger, guilt and even frustration that their pet didn’t get better. It’s important to help children understand that it’s OK to feel these emotions and to feel sad. That’s it’s OK not to want to talk about their pet or how they’re feeling but that when they’re ready to talk you are there for them. Don’t hide your own sadness or even your own feelings of anger or frustration. It’s important to show your children that’s it’s OK to feel these feeling and to cry, even if you’re a grown-up. It’s comforting to children, and to us adults too, to know that we’re not alone in feeling sad. Share stories about pets you had and lost and how difficult it was to say goodbye and how you dealt with those feelings. Remember to speak to their teacher at school so that they can be aware of the child’s emotional state in case they become upset or angry as they struggle to deal with their grief.

When I lost my dog, Megan, when I was 29, it took me years before I could talk about her without crying but I’ve always shared stories of her with my children and shown that even though we have another dog, it doesn’t mean that I love and miss Megan less. I also explain that Megan wouldn’t want me to deny myself the joy of getting another pet when there are so many pets in the world that need the love that I could give another dog.

putting a guinea pig into the ground
Saying Goodbye to Barry

Remember that for a child, the grief they feel over the loss of a pet is similar to the grief they feel over a person. In fact, losing a pet who offered love and friendship and was always there for them, can be more difficult than losing a distant relative. It’s important to let children know that it’s ok to feel that way, even if friends or other family members, especially those who don’t own pets, don’t understand or agree with it.

Talk about your pet, often and with love. Let your children know that whilst the pain will eventually go away, the happy memories will remain. And, when the time comes to get a new pet, help them to understand that this new pet is not a replacement of the pet they lost, but just an additional family member who deserves to be loved for who they are and not seen as a replacement.

child putting flowers on a guinea pig grave
Laying flowers on Barry’s grave

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