What to Do When a Family Pet Dies: Teaching Kids About Grief
by Bestow Team | September 16, 2019
There’s no question that your pet is a member of the family, especially in the eyes of your child. For some little ones, your family cat, dog, hamster, or fish
There’s no question that your pet is a member of the family, especially in the eyes of your child. For some little ones, your family cat, dog, hamster, or fish has been with them since day one. They’ve built their lives around caring for them and know them as part of the family. Helping children through the death of a pet can feel like an impossible task, but there are compassionate ways to support their healing journey, as well as your own.
Between one and five children experience the death of a close loved one before the age of 18. Losing a family pet may be the first time they experience death or even process the concept of what it means. This can make the initial conversation especially confusing for them, so it’s important to consider a few tips for helping them through the grieving process.
There’s no denying that losing a pet is one of the hardest experiences for any family. To help, we’ve created a comprehensive guide to help you support your child through the loss of a family pet, from delivering the news to guiding the healing process.
How to Start the Conversation
When, and how, do you tell children that their pet passed away? Experts say that honesty is always key. Kids need to feel that their parents are clear and open from the beginning. Otherwise, they may develop the feeling that speaking about death is frowned upon or stigmatized. Keeping it a secret or only telling part of the truth could decrease their chances of expressing their emotions freely.
Every child will react differently depending on their age and development. They may have no idea how to process grief, and will also likely experience different feelings than adults. For example, they could go several hours or days before outwardly showing anger or sadness. Processing can take a while, so be patient and gentle.
No matter their reaction, support and encourage them to accept feelings as they come. Here are some step-by-step tips for starting the conversation about losing a pet.
1. Be Straightforward and Honest
As adults, we often use indirect language to speak about death. This can be particularly confusing for children who may be afraid or unaware of what death really means. To help make the conversation clearer for your younger ones, try to avoid using language like “they passed away” or “they moved on.” This is, after all, the first time they’re processing the idea of death itself. There are ways to be honest while remaining gentle and compassionate.
Begin by gently explaining that their pet died and when it occurred. If the child is under five, very calmly explain that this means your pet is no longer with you and will not be coming back. Use your discretion about the details of their passing depending on your child’s age. Give them a moment to let the information sink in and then let them guide the conversation with their own questions. This will help clarify both what they need and how much information they’re ready to hear.
Be clear that any emotions or questions that arise are completely normal and you’re there for them whenever they’re ready to talk.
Above all, always avoid using explanations that avoid the truth altogether. Stay away from claiming that their dog went “to the farm” or to live with another family. This doesn’t allow for a sense of closure and could make your child feel that you made a decision to send the pet away, which could cause resentment.
2. Explain Euthanasia If They’re Ready
Euthanizing a pet can be a confusing concept for young children, especially for younger kids. If you’re concerned about their reaction, wait to explain the concept until they’re older. Since all children differ emotionally, gauge your level of detail depending on how they process information.
Some older children may understand and appreciate knowing the exact details of what happened. Explain that you and the veterinarian decided that this was the best choice based on their pet’s comfort and quality of life. Be sure to note that their pet was not going to get better and describe how euthanasia is sometimes the kindest option.
This may bring up additional questions about the process. As before, let them lead the conversation. They may not process the information all at once, so be sure to give them space while staying available for unpredictable signs of grief.
Try to avoid using the phrase “put to sleep,” especially for younger children. It’s normal to take things quite literally at a young age. They could associate this language with going to sleep at night, which could cause additional stress.
3. Offer Comfort
Learning about grief is just as important as sharing the news itself. Everyone responds differently and in different phases, so it’s important to let your child know that there’s no right or wrong way to heal.
If your child doesn’t seem sad at first, try not to push them in the direction of feeling a certain way. They may not be able to process the concept of their pet being gone until a few days in.
Remind them that you’ll also likely feel sad, angry, and confused — you can work through this together. If there’s something they’d like to do in the moment to bring themselves comfort — such as going for a walk, getting some rest, or spending time with a friend — encourage them to express themselves.
Consider turning to activities that you can do as a family to help with the grieving process. These may include reading children’s books, watching movies, or listening to podcasts that deal with the topic of losing an animal.
Connecting with characters or hearing another expert’s perspective may help them feel less alone in the experience. During the healing process, they will likely realize that this is something everyone has gone through either with a pet or a loved one.
Depending on your child’s age, consider one of the following books, movies, or podcasts for working through this difficult time. These either directly address the loss of a pet or handle death in a compassionate and comforting way.
- The Legend of the Rainbow Bridge: (Ages 4 and up) A well-known poem with colorful and comforting paintings of pets crossing a rainbow to the next world.
- Saying Goodbye to Lulu: (Ages 4–7) A coming-of-age story about a young girl and her dog Lulu. When Lulu passes away later in life, the girl learns how to keep her memories of her friend close to her heart.
- When a Pet Dies: (Ages 4–8) A book in Mr. Roger’s “First Experience” series that gently speaks to children about the sadness of losing a pet.
- The Tenth Good Thing About Barney: (Ages 6–9) A first-person story of a young boy seeking the tenth, and most important, thing that he loved about his dog after its passing.
- Wish: (Ages 9–12) A young girl learns the true meaning of family with the help of a stray dog that becomes her closest friend.
Movies and Podcasts
- Up: (Ages 6 and up) A heartwarming tale of a man journeying to honor his late wife’s spirit of adventure with the help of a young boy, a dog, and a tropical bird.
- All Dogs Go To Heaven: (Ages 8 and up) Charlie the dog sneaks down from heaven to befriend a young girl who can talk to animals.
- The Pet Loss Podcast: (For older children and teenagers) Interviews with counselors, vets, and trainers about the loss of pets.
- Peace Out: (Ages 5–12) Children’s mindfulness and meditation podcast for bedtime.
Answer Their Questions
It’s very normal for your child to have lots of questions. This is especially the case if your pet dies suddenly. They may even look for someone to blame. Explain that it’s tricky to handle your sadness and anger, even though it’s okay to feel both of these things. Try to avoid blaming someone in particular, like the vet. This could build up confusion about death itself and lessen their trust of medical professionals.
If you feel that your own grieving process is misdirecting your child, it’s okay to bring in another adult to help you all process. Create a support team at home and at school to remind your child that you’re there to answer any questions that come up.
To prepare for the initial conversation or conversations to come, consider a few of the most common questions children ask after learning that their pet has passed:
- Will I ever see my pet again?
- Is this my fault?
- Is death forever?
- Why did they die?
- Will our other pets die?
- Where is my pet now?
As we mentioned earlier, use your discretion regarding the details of their passing. Always leave out anything that could be more upsetting or depict the pet’s pain in the end. Instead, redirect the conversation to clarify that they’re no longer in pain.
You can also ask questions to direct them toward working through their thoughts. Try to only encourage this if you feel they’re having a hard time expressing their grief.
- Can you name the feelings you have right now?
- Do you have any questions about what happened?
- What are some things you loved about your pet?
- Can you tell me your favorite story about them?
Celebrate Your Pet’s Life
Part of the grieving process is recognizing the role your pet played in your family. Be sure to explain that your sadness comes from love and you’re still allowed to celebrate this feeling.
After they spend some time processing the news, let them know that you can honor their life in a variety of ways. Also reiterate that there is no timeframe for loss. Specify that they will feel better with time, but that the pet will always play a special role in their memories.
Here are a few ideas for honoring your pet’s life with your child:
Hold a Memorial
Ritual can be an important part of the healing process for people of all ages. Plan a small memorial in your backyard or at the pet’s favorite park. Explain to your child that it can be helpful to spend some quiet time together speaking about the life of the animal and marking the end of their life with love and recognition. Purchase a special item or memorial stone for the event so that they have a visual to relate to.
Plant Flowers in Their Honor
Life-affirming actions can help break through the initial helplessness of learning about death. Suggest planting a tree, flowers, or seeds with your child. It may be a good idea to speak or think about the love they had for their animal every time they pass by the growing plant.
Walk Along Your Route
Losing a pet also means losing daily rituals. If you lost a family dog, consider memorializing their lives by mindfully walking along your route together. This may be too difficult just after your dog’s passing, but it will eventually remind your child that life continues in similar ways. You can honor their memory by enjoying the same route they did.
Make a Temporary Shrine
There are likely items throughout your home that belonged to or remind you of your pet such as a scratch post, dog treats, or fishbowl. Clearing away all of these items too soon may be jarring for a child. Choose a space in your home to arrange these items to honor their memory. Choose a time in the near future to put these away when you’re ready.
Frame and Hang a Photo
Consider displaying your favorite images of your pet somewhere special in your home. Encourage your child to help you pick out the photo and frame so that they’re part of the ritual.
Draw or Paint a Picture
It can be hard to find the words to express your feelings, especially for younger kids. During the grieving process, ask your child if they’d like to draw a picture with you in honor of the lost pet. It doesn’t need to be of the pet itself, just anything that comes to mind to help them process their emotions.
Look for Signs That Your Child is Struggling
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry expresses that short-term responses to grief are normal in children. It will likely take them some time to truly accept their pet isn’t coming back, especially if they’re under the age of five. They may have frequent mood swings or lash out, such as with temper tantrums. They may even act like the pet is their imaginary friend.
More serious issues could persist past a couple of weeks, however. Be aware of signs that they need more support to get through this tough time.
These may include:
- Loss of appetite, disrupted sleep habits, or little interest in daily activities
- Long periods of talking to or imagining the pet is near (this is normal at first)
- Withdrawing from friends
- Unexpected anger or crying weeks after the pet’s passing
- Disinterest in school
- Prolonged maturity regression
If you sense that your child is struggling, it could be helpful to speak with a professional counselor. Be sure to check in with your child’s school or daycare during this time. Signs of long-term grief can be unclear, manifesting at different times of the day. As a team, you can provide a support system during this difficult process.
Experts offer additional support for parents guiding their children through grief for the first time. Consider these resources for more in-depth advice:
- When Children Grieve: For Adults to Help Children Deal with Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving, and Other Losses
- Helping Children Grieve: When Someone They Love Dies
- Parenting Through Crisis
- The Grief Recovery Handbook for Pet Loss
- Children and Grief: A podcast for parents before speaking with their children
- The Grieving Child: A Parent’s Guide
- National Alliance for Grieving Children
The loss of a pet is a significant event for people of all ages. Your animal provided a loving presence in your home for years. For many children, this is the first time they begin thinking about the concept of passing away. By honoring their feelings and providing attentive support, they will learn that a community comes together in times of grief. They can learn that though a loved one’s memory never fades, you can honor their lives in ways that help them move forward.