Imagine being a child and losing a parent, sibling, friend, or pet. Who would you talk to about your sadness and other feelings, and who would really understand your grief?
Understanding a child’s grief is complicated because a child’s age essentially determines his or her actual understanding of death. For example, a child 10 or older generally grasps that death is permanent whereas a child younger does not. Consequently, how to talk with a child about loss will be qualitatively different depending upon their age as well as level of development. And, one approach does not work with all children of all ages nor does the same approach work with children as they age and need to re-address this loss.
Further complicating matters is that grieving parents are often overwhelmed and unable to address their own grief as well as their child’s. Because grieving children (like adults) are at risk for developing depression and anxiety, and time does not heal all wounds, these children must have someone to turn to but whom?
At home, children often turn to their family pets for unconditional support and love. Their physical and spiritual presence provides children not only someone to talk to but that additional caring and support that we all need when grieving. However, loving pets are often not enough. That’s where Pet Assisted Therapy is the answer.
Combining pets with psychotherapy or Pet Assisted Therapy is an immensely powerful approach for facilitating the grieving process in children as well as addressing and resolving a number of other problems. Many years ago, I discovered this after incorporating my first therapy dog, Dr. G., into my practice. His divine presence put both children and their parents at ease and greatly facilitated healing.
After Dr. G. passed, Dude, my 9 year old German Shepherd from California, stepped up to the plate. He is a gentle and loving therapy dog who is highly trained and skilled as well as quite intuitive when it comes to interacting with grieving children. Consequently, children immediately feel at ease with him and are much more willing and able to visit their sadness. Sometimes, I combine play therapy with pet assisted therapy for much younger children who aren’t able to put their feelings into words.
Originally published on The Healthy Planet, Feburary 1st, 2011