The Evidence Is In
Validation is always a wonderful thing. And children who love and lose a pet are finally starting to get their fair share of it.
A Massachusetts General Hospital research study recently confirmed that the grief of pet loss for children and adolescents can be profound, and when the trauma is left unaddressed it can result in significant, prolonged mental health issues. This measurable psychological distress can even lead to clinical depression three or more years after the death of a family pet. Astonishing as this may be, this is the first formal research to explore this important subject in such depth.
It’s important to note that before children even reach their seventh birthdays, a full 63% of those who grow up with pets will experience one of their deaths.
While the true number of pet dogs and cats in the world isn’t known, it’s estimated to be 850 million. In developed nations, approximately half of households include pets. So, there are staggering implications for the impact of pet loss grief in young lives, and well into adulthood.
Early Pet Loss Can Have an Adverse Psychological Impact
The study's researchers analyzed the mental and emotional health of 6,260 children who had either never loved a pet, loved and lost a pet, or loved a pet without loss. Published in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, the study found that the severity of this grief is seriously underestimated and the resulting adverse effects occurred regardless of the child’s socioeconomic status or hardships they already endured before the pet’s death.
Lead author Katherine Crawford stated, “We found that the experience of pet death is often associated with elevated mental health symptoms in children. Parents and physicians need to recognize and take these reactions seriously, not simply brush them off.”
Previous research has shown the loss of a beloved pet can feel as intense as the loss of a human loved one, but this is the first study to look specifically at children's attachment to pets and how their mental health might be affected by the loss.
The researchers were surprised to find that symptoms of depression were more pronounced in boys than girls. This was evident across the board no matter the age at which a child suffered the loss of their pet or how recent the death was.
Children Deserve Help with Grieving
The variety of health benefits – physical, interpersonal, and cognitive – of having a furry sibling are well documented. Pets provide children with affection and comfort and help them to develop empathy, self-esteem and social competence. It is because of these strong bonds that the grieving process shouldn't be taken lightly by parents or pediatricians, the researchers said. "One of the first major losses a child will encounter is likely to be the death of a pet, and the impact can be traumatic, especially when that pet is a close family member. Having someone to talk to in a sympathetic or therapeutic way may be extremely helpful for a child who is grieving.”
For anyone who grew up with a beloved companion animal, it’s likely these conclusions come as no surprise. Our direct experience with loving our furry pals was deeply formative, as was how the adults around us either honored or dismissed the importance of that early relationship and the deep grief associated with the loss.
It’s encouraging to know that scientific investigations of the human-animal bond can contribute to the culture shift that is essential if we are to cultivate greater kindness and compassion across humanity and between species.
One Significant Caveat
The study’s abstract states, “Pet death may be traumatic for children and associated with subsequent mental health difficulties. Where childhood pet ownership and pet bereavement are concerned, Tennyson’s pronouncement may not apply to children’s grief responses: it may not be “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
I respectfully challenge this conclusion because it is true only if the adults in young persons’ lives fail to provide buffering interventions to help them move with their grief and thrive during such difficult life experiences. Life is fundamentally about change and love — and therefore, loss and grief — and it’s up to the grown-ups to cultivate the resilience in children that will serve them well both short- and long-term. This is an especially vital truth when it comes to close loved ones because the extraordinary benefits of strong attachments far exceed the anguish that comes with the inevitable end of life.
Children deserve to have their deep love for their pets validated, with the adults in their lives helping them to understand and honor its many manifestations. With compassionate support, they can come to fully appreciate Lord Alfred Tennyson's inspired words, because the benefits of furry siblings are well worth it.
A Long Overdue Culture Shift
RemembeRing is proud to serve as a new mourning tradition for pet loss.
It is designed for this special kind of heartbreak, providing a tangible, meaningful activity that is particularly helpful for children as they process their grief, gain life lessons, and celebrate the joy in these bonds that will endure forever.
Let’s keep this positive trend moving forward by giving close attention to the essential role of companion animals in our lives and by supporting each other — of all ages — when it’s time to say goodbye to them.