New research at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, focuses on how children understand death in these moments, and the ideas, feelings and responses they have when their pets die.
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“How children understand death in these moments, and the ideas, feelings and responses they have when their pets die are largely ignored topics,” questions researcher Joshua J Russell.
The study reveals that pets are more than just animals to children.
“They often see themselves as the center of their pets’ affections,” said Russell, who conducted one-on-one interviews with children between the ages of six and 13.
“They describe their pets as siblings or best friends with whom they have strong connections,” he added.
For example, Neville, a 13-year-old boy was shaken by the sudden death of his cat, even though it occurred two years earlier.
After speaking to the boy Russell said, “I asked Neville how he felt when he learned his cat was struck by a car and he replied, ‘My life was over.'”
Unfortunately, the joy of owning a pet often goes hand-in-hand with the heartbreak of losing one.
Children, in particular, “have a distinct sense of existential fairness around whether or not an animal lived until an appropriate age,” Russell explained.
A short lifespan “is normal for hamsters and fish,” according to the children interviewed, “but unexpected for dogs, cats and rabbits.” Similarly, different kinds of deaths mean different things to children.
“Children whose pets lived the extent of their potential lifetimes — or beyond — expressed acceptance upon their deaths,” Russell continued.
The children also suggested that euthanasia “was the moral thing to do when a pet is suffering.” Conversely, children whose pets died unexpectedly “described it as emotionally and morally unfair, and had a much more difficult time reconciling the loss.”
In all instances, family and friends helped the children cope with the loss of their beloved pets through discussions and family rituals. Although, Russell discovered ambivalence about whether a new pet would lessen their grief.
“There were those who felt it would be wrong to move on to a new pet because they had to honor their relationships with the deceased one.” Several children, however, “explicitly linked getting a new pet with feeling better,” Russell further explained. “They explained it as an opportunity to start over and suggested that replacing a companion animal is more about beginning a new relationship than erasing memories of an old one.”
Neville summarized it best, Russell concluded, when he said, “Sometimes death is tragic, like when a cat is run over by a car. But ultimately, death is part of life and life does go on.”
Joshua Russell’s research involving children and non-human animals is ongoing. He is using a grant from the national Culture and Animals Foundation to investigate how children describe and derive meaning from wildlife recreational experiences, such as hunting and fishing.