Grief affects everyone differently, through both emotional turmoil and physical exhaustion, and impacts our body, heart, and soul. Whether we have grieved before or feel “prepared” for these patterns, grief can hit us like a wave of shock, disbelief, and heartache. Losing our animal friend hurts our hearts deeply. Our pets love us unconditionally, carry no judgment, and are here for us in our joyous moments and darkest nights. This is true for all ages, including for teenagers who have grown up with their pets and share a special bond.
When it comes to grief and loss, teenagers’ experiences may be unique in several ways. Teens are learning to control new emotions, experiencing physical changes, and developing socially and cognitively, while also gaining increased independence. For many, having an animal companion may open the door to new friendships, and social connections, and bring love and gratitude through a happy tail wag or kiss. Therefore, losing their animal friend can bring intense feelings of grief and pain that they may not have experienced before, along with their possible first encounter with death. While explaining death and loss should be done with specialized wording to younger children, teenagers understand loss at a more mature level and are able to have an honest conversation with adults.
One of the challenges that teens face is in balancing their internal grief response and external reaction. Teens often want to react maturely in the eyes of their friends and family, but also grieve authentically and personally. Teens frequently face expectations of remaining resilient and not displaying too much emotion during pet loss. This may be even more expected among boys. In truth, teens should always be able to grieve openly like everyone else, no matter what age or gender.
There are two common grief patterns: staggering and developmental grief. In her book. The AfterGrief, Hope Edelman describes how teens go through staggered grief patterns, which refers to the pattern of openly grieving in small amounts and then engaging in normal behavior and activities with friends and family and then back again. Because teens experience such intense emotions, they often need to “take a break” and stagger their grief process.
A second grief pattern of teens is developmental, meaning that they are still slowly learning to process grief and death as a whole, first taking in emotional and physical reactions, and then later understanding how to reflect and understand at an older age, sometimes many years later. Teens are still young in their development and typically process grief in stages and need our kindness and patience during these trying times.
If you have a teenager or know a teen currently grieving their pet, here are some ways to help create a supportive environment for them:
- Respect their bond with their pet by validating their friendship and acknowledging the pain of their loss.
- Help honor the pet through planning memorialization activities, such as a remembrance ceremony or personalized service
- When possible, include teens through the euthanasia process. This can help them feel trusted and empowered to be a part of the decision.
- Encourage teens to express their pain through words or art
Teens share a powerful bond with their animal friends and go through a deeply painful wave of loss when their pet passes away. With support, teenagers can understand that it is always okay to express their emotions through pet loss, share their hearts with others, and have everlasting gratitude for their time together.