An Age-by-Age Guide to Explaining the Death of a Pet to Children
From goldfish to guinea pigs to every pet in between (yes, including dogs and cats, of course), pets are part of the family. Heck, my first pet, the most wonderful Golden Retriever ever (I am NOT biased!) died 17 years ago and I still miss her!
The topic of pet loss in families is so common that there was a best-selling adult book about the subject, Marley and Me by John Grogan. Even reality star Kim Kardashian addressed the topic of pet loss in a recent episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Her daughter North’s beloved Hamster passed away and Kim struggled with ways to tell North the sad news and she vowed to never get her kids another pet. (A common reaction to pet heartbreak, but chances are eventually you’ll get another pet once everyone’s emotional wounds are on the mend.)
“Children often describe their pets as being part of the family, or the companion they turn to during difficult times,” says Kristen Arquette, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Bellevue, WA. “For many children, their first experience with grief is through the loss of a pet. While informing a sensitive child of a pet’s death is especially challenging, learning to cope can help teach kids to process future losses.”
Here are some ways to explain pet loss to your young, sensitive souls, in ways they’ll hopefully understand and find comfort in.
Explaining the Death of a Pet to Kids 7 and Under
Speak with your child as soon as possible and choose a familiar, peaceful place and a quiet time to talk. “Pets die for a variety of reasons – old age, illness, or injuries. Talk about the possibilities of a terminally ill or older pet dying, and the associated feelings, before the loss occurs,” advises Arquette. “Reassure children that they can still enjoy the time they have with their pet.”
Choose words that are direct, honest, and calm.
According to Arquette, when talking with your kids about what happened, use the words “death” and “dying” rather than phrases such as “went to sleep,” or “went away,” or “went to heaven.” Make sure your child understands that dying means that the pet’s body has stopped working, and the pet will not come back. “Subtleties and euphemisms can cause confusion and anxiety, and lead to misunderstandings and mistrust,” says Arquette.
Don’t ignore questions they ask.
According to Arquette, it’s okay to give the child additional information if they ask. “Questions are a signal that they want to talk about the loss, and are an opportunity to provide comfort. The level of detail provided should correlate to the child’s questions.”
Remember that every kid will process the news differently.
Note that a child’s understanding and ability to cope with death is impacted by their age and developmental level. “Most kids under six cannot grasp the permanence of death,” explains Arquette. “Their behaviors may regress temporarily, or they may see themes of death in play, such as make believe that the pet is still alive or has just died.” Adults can join in with this play and encourage it. “Young children may need to be told repeatedly that the pet’s body stopped working and it died. They may believe that they somehow caused the death, and need to be told that it was not their fault. They may also benefit from reminders that the pet died because it was sick, and that caregivers are healthy and will continue to care for the child.”
It may seem so easy to just blame the vet, but don’t. “I've heard all sorts of stories, many blaming the doctors or saying the pet ran away,” advises Judy Morgan, DVM, a New Jersey-based veterinarian. “Never make the veterinarian or doctor out to be bad, as this will scare children away from seeking help for a sick pet or person in the family. Saying the pet ran away leaves the child always ‘looking’ for the pet, wondering why the pet did not love them enough to stay.”
Use a book to explain death.
Adds Dr. Morgan: “There is an awesome book ‘Until We Meet Again,’ that we give to families when a pet dies, from any means. It is filled with wonderful prose and hand drawn pictures of animals of all types.”
Explaining the Death of a Pet to Kids Over 8
Explain the role of euthanasia.
Older children, especially, are often curious about euthanasia or other details of death. “Explain that the vet will give the pet a shot to put them to sleep and stop their heart from beating,” says Arquette. “Before euthanasia, explain that the pet wasn’t going to get better, and that the family chose a kind way to help the pet die without pain.”
Talk with the vet.
“Please be honest with your children, tell them the truth,” stresses Dr. Morgan. “Ask if they want to be present when euthanasia is performed and if they want to see or touch the body. Closure is very important for children. Teenagers sometimes struggle the most and it is important to include them in the process.”
Remind teens it’s OK to cry.
According to Middle Earth NJ, a non-profit agency and online resource guide dedicated to empowering today’s youth, teens need their parents to validate their feelings and understand how much they miss their pet. “It’s important to let your teen know that grief is an appropriate response and everyone expresses it in different ways (crying, numbness, apathy, staying busy, etc.), all of which are normal.”
At any age…
Remind kids you’re sad too.
Validate the child’s emotions, and if you’re upset too, it’s okay to let your child see your feelings so they know they aren’t alone in their grief, explains Arquette. “Grief ebbs and flows, and it is natural to have all kinds of feelings after someone as special as a pet dies.” She recommends talking about what the pet meant to you and how much you miss it, as well as special things the family can do to remember it.
Engage in a goodbye ritual.
“Choosing a good-bye ritual can also be helpful to honor the role the pet had in the family, such as making a scrapbook, holding a memorial service, or scattering the pet’s ashes,” says Arquette. “Children can be encouraged to share their feelings by talking, writing, or drawing about the fun times they had together and what their pet meant to them. “Allow your child to contribute to the memorial if they want to, advises Arquette, by decorating the grave marker, finding a burial place, or choosing an item such as the pet’s favorite toy to bury with it.
Share your own animal story.
Says Arquette: “Some children may benefit from reading books about families who have lost pets, or from hearing a parent talk about the special pets they had when they were young, and how they coped with the loss of those pets and eventually felt better.”
Getting your kids to talk and open up can be difficult. Here are the top 50 Questions to Ask Your Kids to Get Them Talking.