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What it means for a child to cope with the loss of her first pet

The loss of a pet, especially a child's first pet, is often a child’s first introduction to death and can impact them for months

A pet builds empathy and teaches responsibility which can go a long way in how a child interacts with their peer groups. A loss, therefore, can be immense.(Pexels)

By Azera Parveen Rahman

LAST PUBLISHED 05.11.2023  |  02:15 PM IST

Losing a beloved pet is hard. And when it happens suddenly, unexpectedly, it almost feels like you have been thrown into the deep end of the pool at a stage when you barely know how to swim. I know the feeling—I have been through it. Yet, when Neon, our beautiful fish, suddenly died a few weeks ago, there was nothing I could do to prepare Z, my nine-year-old to face the inevitable truth of death and heartbreak.

Neon came to our lives less than a year back, on our daughter’s birthday. It had taken her months of persuasion to ‘have a pet’ for us to finally give in. “How about a fish?" I had suggested, carefully sidelining the requests for a pup or a kitten. “It will be your pet and you can take on the responsibility of feeding him and helping us clean the bowl," I had said. 

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When she first met Neon, Z was initially awkward. Naturally, it was like meeting a stranger for the first time. But soon, I witnessed the slow blossoming of a beautiful bonding which, to be honest, I had not anticipated.

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There is enough research to suggest how a pet impacts a child’s development positively. Interacting with a pet builds empathy and teaches responsibility which can go a long way in how she or he interacts with their peer group. Bonding with a pet initiates a relationship of love, friendship and loyalty.

Neon would flutter his flowing tail at the sound of our voice, making small circles each time Z would call him out before leaving for school and after returning. He would also be gracious enough to come up to the surface and blow a small bubble when her friends would come over and they would squeal in delight. And much as she loved him, Z was responsible and strict with his feeding—four pellets only, she would say—and sharp at 2100 hours, when the alarm would go off. Morning feeding was entrusted upon me.

When it was time for Neon to go, I could clearly see the signs. But there was no time for my own sadness. I had to think of a way to gently break the news to Z. When she returned from school and heard the news, her first reaction was not loud crying but a quiet shock. “Why?" she kept asking me, again and again. The tears finally came and came with a fierceness of despair, then anger. She felt cheated. Betrayed. 

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Psychologist Amanda Harris of the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network, says that children’s understanding of death changes during different ages and stages in life. “As a parent, you may underestimate the impact that losing a pet can have for a child. Sometimes the impact may be small and not last long; for others the impact may be big and may endure for weeks and months to follow," she said.

The loss of a pet—of one’s first pet, especially—is often a child’s first introduction to death, says a piece in The Harvard Gazette, while referring to a study by researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital; the process of grieving is just like anyone mourning or the passing of a loved one. For me, to watch my child grieve was heartbreaking. It washed her over in waves. She would mourn her loss, then go back to her books and other things, before returning to despair once again.

This was an unchartered territory for both of us and I tried my best to comfort and answer her queries as honestly as I could. For every time I said, “It was his time to go. He left a happy fish, well-fed and much loved," there was also, “He has now gone to a happy place, deep underwater with all things he loved." 

Grief is a strange thing. It changes its form over time and you learn how to live with it. Over the next few days, I saw my daughter cope with her grief in her own way. We decided to bury Neon in a flower pot. Z chose a white one and after whispering a goodbye, planted three seeds in it. “I will water it every day, just like I fed him," she told me.

Azera Parveen Rahman is a writer currently based in Bhuj, Gujarat.