How to Talk to Children About the Death of a Family Pet

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Sadie Holloway, a proud cat parent, is a strong advocate for adopting pets from animal shelters and rescue organizations.

When a family pet dies, parents are faced with the difficult task of explaining to their children what has happened. There is no short answer as to how to support your child through the loss of a pet. Each child is different, and each child will have their own way of coping with the loss of their furry friend.

In his book, Going Home, Finding Peace When Pets Die, New York Times bestselling author Jon Katz offers some tips for how to talk to children about the death of a pet. According to Katz, one of the most important things is for parents to honor and witness each child’s experience of grief and sadness when the pet dies.

1. Teach Your Children Early About the Cycle of Life

There's no need to be morose about death, but Katz suggests talking to children about the cycle of life for animals long before their pets get sick or old. Find ways to help kids understand that pets don’t live as long as people. Understanding the life of cats and dogs and other small critters will make pet loss a little easier to accept if it happens in the child's youth. Hopefully, the child will mature long before a pet dies, but it's OK for children to know that they may have several dogs or cats that they love and lose over their lifetime.

2. Be Gentle and Forthright With Your Children

If a pet is injured or falls ill, let your children know as soon as possible. Tell them about any medications the pet may need to take or any changes to the animal's diet and exercise routines. If the vet will allow it, let the children come to the animal hospital when the pet needs care. Sensitive pet care providers and animal hospitals have experience helping families address pet loss. Sometimes it can be comforting for children to meet the veterinarian and the people who will be providing care for their dying pet. The idea is to let the children know that the family is actively taking care of their cherished friend. Everyone is doing what they can to help the pet maintain a good quality of life. When the pet dies, the children can be assured that everyone did their best and that the pet was deeply loved and cared for until the very end. This can help children cope with any feelings of guilt or anger they may have when the pet passes away.

3. Host Discussions About End-of-Life Issues

There may come a time when parents will need to talk to their children about euthanizing a pet. Katz says, “Including older children in end-of-life decisions for animals can help them deal with the impending loss in a healthy manner. Kids love their pets and are entitled to be involved in the process.” They may not be able to change an inevitable decision, but they will at least be able to understand why the decision to let the pet die peacefully was the most loving thing they could do to ease the animal's pain.

4. Be Honest When a Pet Dies

If a pet dies when the child is absent, do not put off talking about what has happened. Children are much more aware of what's going on than adults give them credit for. If a pet dies and the adults aren't talking about it, the child may think their feelings are being dismissed. While euphemisms may seem comforting, stories about the pet “going to sleep” aren’t always helpful and can be confusing for children. Children may believe that their animal is still alive somewhere, waiting to return home. Kids of all ages should have the chance to say goodbye to their pets in their own way. They need to experience their grief fully and to heal and find some sort of closure after the pet’s death. Avoidance of talking about pet's death won't ease a child's pain and sadness.

5. Let Children Memorialize Their Pet

Katz recommends that parents actively include their children in honoring the life of the deceased pet family member. Find a quiet time and place to come together to share and listen to each other’s happy memories of the cherished pet. Support family members of all ages in writing poems and tributes to their pets. Don't be afraid to express your own grief and sadness about losing the pet either. Kids look to their parents to see if what they are feeling is normal and OK. Let them know that when they talk about the loss of their animal friend, both tears and laughter are OK. Let them know that there are no right or wrong ways to grieve and that individual members of the family may express their sadness differently. Some ways to come together and honor the deceased pet include drawing pictures, sharing photographs, planning a memorial service, planting a tree or building a small garden monument in honor of the lost pet.

When a family pet—whether it's a dog, a cat or a lizard dies—parents can find tools and resources to support their children in handling their grief. Pet bereavement is not a taboo subject anymore and there are many books, support groups and online forums that adults can access to help themselves and their children cope with pet loss grief. Regardless of all the other tools out there, however, remember that the number one source of emotional support and guidance for your children should be you, their parents.

Though it breaks your heart to see your children feeling sad, kids can't be shielded from life’s losses forever. Most children will experience other deaths in their lives (i.e.: the loss of family, friends and relatives to illness, old age, accidents or other tragic circumstances). Katz says, “The loss of pets can be a window for children into the profound, and inevitable, experiences life has in store for all of us.”

Please feel free to share your experience in helping your children cope with the loss of a family pet.

© 2013 Sadie Holloway

Children and the Death of a Pet

For many children, their first real experience with loss occurs when a pet dies. When a pet dies, children need consolation, love, support, and affection more than they need complicated medical or scientific explanations. Children’s reactions to the death of a pet will depend upon their age and developmental level. Children 3 to 5 years of age see death as temporary and potentially reversible. Between ages 6 and 8, children begin to develop a more realistic understanding of the nature and consequences of death. Generally, it is not until 9 years of age that children fully understand that death is permanent and final. For this reason, very young children should be told that when a pet dies, it stops moving, doesn’t see or hear anymore, and won’t wake up again. They may need to have this explanation repeated to them several times.

There are many ways parents can tell their children that a pet has died. It is often helpful to make children as comfortable as possible (use a soothing voice, hold their hand or put an arm around them) and to tell them in a familiar setting. It is also important to be honest when telling children that a pet has died. Trying to protect children with vague or inaccurate explanations can create anxiety, confusion, and mistrust.

Children often have questions after a pet dies, including: Why did my pet die? Is it my fault? Where does my pet’s body go? Will I ever see my pet again? If I wish hard and am really good can I make my pet come back? Does death last forever? It is important to answer such questions simply, but honestly. Children may experience sadness, anger, fear, denial, and guilt when their pet dies. They may also be jealous of friends with pets.

When a pet is sick or dying, spend time talking with your child about his/her feelings. If possible, it is helpful to have the child say goodbye before the pet dies. Parents can serve as models by sharing their feelings with their children. Let your child know it is normal to miss pets after they die and encourage the youngster to come to you with questions or for reassurance and comfort.

There is no best way for children to mourn their pets. They need to be given time to remember their pets. It helps to talk about the pet with friends and family. Mourning a pet has to be done in a child’s own way. After a pet has died, children may want to bury the pet, make a memorial, or have a ceremony. Other children may write poems and stories, or make drawings of the pet. It is usually best not to immediately replace the pet that has died.

The death of a pet may cause a child to remember other painful losses, or upsetting events. A child who appears to be overwhelmed by their grief and not able to function in their normal routine may benefit from an evaluation by a child and adolescent psychiatrist or other qualified mental health professional.

How to Talk to Children About the Death of a Family Pet - pets

Many people do not realize how traumatic and confusing death can be on a child. Although children tend to grieve for shorter periods of time, their grief is no less intense than that experienced by adults. Children also tend to comeback to the subject repeatedly so extreme patience is required when dealing with the grieving child.

Below are options for caregivers of children to help them through the loss of a beloved pet.

"I Miss My Pet: A workbook for children about pet loss" by Katie Nurmi © This workbook let's children work through the loss of a pet by teaching the child that their feelings are impotant and respected. They will also learn that respect for all living creatures is an important aspect of growing up.

An Acrobat Reader is needed to view and print this book. Your browser probably already is set-up to accomadate this PDF file but if not you can download it by clicking here

1. Giving the child permission to work through their grief.

- Tell their teacher about the pet's death.

- Encourage the child to talk freely about the pet.

- Give the child plenty of hugs and reassurance.

- Discuss death, dying and grief honestly.

2. NEVER say things like "God took your pet," or the pet was "put to sleep."

- The child will learn to fear that God will take them, their parents or their siblings.

- The child will become afraid of going to sleep.

3. Include the child in everything that is going on.

4. Explain the permanency of death.

Children in this age range have some understanding of death but in a way that relates to a continued existence. The pet may be considered to be living underground while continuing to eat, breathe, and play.

Alternatively, it may be considered asleep. A return to life may be expected if the child views death as temporary. These children often feel that any anger they had for the pet may be responsible for its death. This view should be refuted because they may also translate this belief to the death of family members in the past.

Some children also see death as contagious and begin to fear that their own death (or that of others) is imminent. They should be reassured that their death is not likely. Manifestations of grief often take the form of disturbances in bladder and bowel control, eating, and sleeping. This is best managed by parent-child discussions that allow the child to express feelings and concerns. Several brief discussions are generally more productive than one or two prolonged sessions.

How to Respond to Children’s Questions

Children may ask many questions when their pet passes. The best approach is to be honest and compassionate. Children may ask:

  • Why did the pet die?
  • Where do animals go when they die?
  • Can I see the pet again?
  • Is the pet with God?
  • Can the dog or cat still run around our home? Can they hear us?

Young children only need basic information to satisfy their curiosity. Other questions can be answered based on your family’s religious views regarding the soul and the afterlife. There are many books that can help you answer these questions. In addition, it’s perfectly OK to tell a child that you’re not sure you know the answer. Most importantly children need to know that they can share what’s on their mind and that feeling grief is a normal part of losing a pet.

Losing a Pet — How to Help Your Toddler Deal With Death

Losing a pet is hard for anyone, but it’s an especially difficult concept for a toddler to grasp. That can make it pretty hard for you to help your darling deal with the death of a pet. First of all, how do you break the news? It might seem easier to work up a little white lie (“Lulu ran away, but she’ll find her way back soon!”), but experts advise being honest and upfront with your children (so you don’t have to keep fibbing when Lulu never returns). Here’s what to say and do about losing a pet.

  • Stick to the facts. Skip the TV-sitcom scenario (you know, the one in which the parents secretly replace the old pet with a look-alike), and instead give your child an age-appropriate explanation of what happened. Simply state the facts: Lulu was struck by a car, or had cancer and had to be euthanized, or died of old age. You don’t need to share the details, just tell your tot what she needs to know: “Lulu died. We’re very sad that we won’t see her anymore.” An older toddler or preschooler may want to know more, so you might explain that when animals get very old or very sick their bodies stop working. You could also read children’s books that help cope with losing a pet, such as Dog Heaven and Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant and I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm.
  • Don’t use euphemisms like “put to sleep” or “went away.” Those terms can confuse or scare your little one. You certainly don’t want her to be afraid to sleep or leave the house — or imagine that you won’t wake up should you catch a nap. Explain gently, and repeatedly if necessary, that Lulu died and she’s not coming back.
  • Encourage your tot to talk about her feelings. It’s okay to be sad or mad about the death of a pet, and make sure your child knows that. But don’t be surprised if your little one isn’t as upset as you are, especially if she’s very young. She’s probably not really grasping the concept of death or never being able to play with her pet again. Or she may not have the same emotional investment in your furry (or feathered) family member that you or your older child have.
  • Say goodbye. If you’ve made the difficult decision to euthanize your pet, be honest. Consider it a teachable moment for talking about suffering (books can help here, too). Then let your little one say her good-byes, and make sure she understands that Lulu won’t be coming back home.
  • Share your grief about the death of a pet. Learning how to deal with sad feelings is an important lesson for toddlers, so let her see that you’re sad. (After all, teaching your little one about compassion and empathy is one of the benefits of having a pet at all.) You can even cry a bit, but don’t lose control in front of her. If you feel the need to really weep, do so in private so she doesn’t get frightened on top of being sad.
  • Memorialize her pet. Sometimes it’s helpful for a toddler to say good-bye after losing a pet, perhaps by holding a simple ceremony to honor her pet’s life or by drawing a picture. Encourage this — and help her remember good times with the family pet, either by looking at photos or telling stories about the pet’s antics.
  • After losing a pet, take a break before getting a new one. Give your household time to grieve before bringing another animal into your lives. If and when you do decide to get another pet, let your tot know that it’s okay to still feel sad about the old one and be excited about her new four-legged friend.
One more thing to keep in mind when losing a pet: Expect all sorts of behavior — toddlers tend to hate any kind of change, especially sudden ones. Your tot might act out, be extra cranky, or have trouble sleeping when her much-loved kitty or pooch dies. Or she might get super-clingy — after all, if a pet can die, so can the people she loves. Help her adjust by being extra patient and reassuring.

Watch the video: How to Talk to Your Kids about the Death of a Pet


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