I know this is a really tough question to ask — it’s wonderful that you have the courage to reach out at this difficult time.
The loss of a beloved pet is a major life experience for most children and it is often their first introduction to death. The closer the bond and the longer the pet’s life, the bigger the impact, challenge, and opportunity for life lessons. Pets are a special type of sibling or best friend, so it can be profoundly devastating when they leave a child’s circle. However, it may take a long while for reality to register — depending on their age, they may not recognize the significance of the loss or even seem troubled at first.
A Truly Formative Experience
The loss of a beloved pet presents a meaningful opportunity for developing resilience in children. How adults support and guide them along this path as they grieve is truly formative and the lessons they learn about themselves, others, and the world will ripple through the rest of their lives. As with all parenting in a stressful situation, youngsters will look to you as their role model to learn how to cope and express their feelings.
Every individual grieves differently and at their own pace, and while there are familiar patterns, it tends to be more of a roller coaster. Your child will be grateful to have you beside them on the ride. This experience will help to prepare them for new losses as they will inevitably occur.
You are fortunate if you’re able to anticipate the pet’s passing because it gives you a chance to plan. Keep in mind that your child will be picking up on subtle changes in how you and other family members (including other furry ones, of course) are relating to your pet so they may start asking questions sooner than you expect.
Common Questions Children Tend to Ask
You may already be wondering what to do if your child asks a question that you’re uncertain about answering. First, pause and take deep breaths. It’s perfectly fine to buy more time with something like, “Uhm-hm, I wonder,” or “What do you think?” or “Yes, that’s a good question. Can I think about it and we’ll talk a little later?” Here are some of the questions you might anticipate:
- Why did he/she die?
- Where did he/she go?
- When is he/she coming back? Or, Will we see him/her again?
- Is he/she with God? Or, Is he/she in Heaven?
- Can he/she hear us?
- Are you going to die? Or, Am I going to die?
- A child’s developmental age is perhaps the most significant variable for how you frame what to say because it determines their capacity to process existential concepts and the finality of the death. A basic rule of thumb is that the younger the child, the less information they can handle, so follow their lead and listen closely. Until approximately age six, children have yet to develop a firm sense of permanence so they can’t really understand that the pet is gone forever and will not return. They think everything can be reversed.
- It’s also okay to say that you don’t have an answer. By all means, share your own personal thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Help them find the words they need to communicate their reactions. Let children know that it’s alright to ask any question, and to cry. And it’s okay for you to cry with them as they learn that tears can help ease some of the sorrow. Extra affection and plenty of reassurance that you’re there for them can go a long way for all involved.
- Due to the sensitive nature of pet loss, it helps to explain things as openly and truthfully as possible and at the child's level of understanding. Honesty is the best policy so use the terms "death" and "dying" to avoid confusion. Generally avoid giving much extra detail they don’t seem to be soliciting.
- In addition to family, friends and neighbors, be sure to share this important news with the child’s other caregivers, day/aftercare providers, teachers and coaches so they can be active supports in response to the loss of the pet.
- By attending to a child’s cues about the imminent end-of-life experience, you will be presented with opportunities to initiate conversations, with brief exchanges at first to gauge their curiosity and comfort talking about the subject.
- If the pet is old or visibly sick and declining, you can begin by acknowledging the pet’s physical changes in order to initiate a conversation about what is happening.
- Spiritual, religious, cultural and philosophical beliefs arise naturally with the topic of death so you can decide if you want to teach your children about yours or you can encourage them as they begin to develop their own ideas about divinity, the soul, an afterlife, rituals and the nature of the world. Be prepared if you tell your child that "God took them because they're special" because they are likely to resent God and fear who is going to die next.
- Children can become consumed by intense anger, fear, doubt, regret, guilt and blame. Give special attention to these episodes because they may indicate your child is harboring worrisome notions that need to be corrected, e.g., that they are somehow responsible for the pet’s demise.
- Similarly, young kids are inclined to magical thinking as they try to figure out the world so they may think that if they just wish hard enough they can bring their pet back.
- Some children are so overwhelmed by the loss of a pet that their cognitive capacities are severely compromised. They can have trouble focusing and functioning in school, and this inability to concentrate or a tendency to daydream can scare them. They may think they’re “going crazy.” It’s important to assure your child that this confusion is natural and help them to express their grief through words, art, music, sports, and other favorite outlets.
- Children also tend to exhibit stress through physical sensations, behaviors and psychological symptoms. They can have trouble differentiating these bodily indicators from their emotions. Grief often manifests directly as all sorts of both specific and vague symptoms, for example, insomnia, nightmares, fatigue, and lethargy; generalized irritability, agitation and aggression; clinging or withdrawal; loss of or insatiable appetite; bladder and bowel disturbances; rashes or hair loss; nausea, gas, diarrhea and gastrointestinal distress; back-, neck- and headaches; muscle stiffness; heart palpitations and changes in breathing; other odd aches and pains. If the bereaved complains of such issues, it’s fine to wonder aloud if their grief may be expressing itself physically. Stress can also manifest with regressed behavior such as thumb-sucking, tantrums, or rocking. Reflective listening and helping them to articulate their feelings can reduce these issues. If they don’t resolve quickly, pursue professional help to address them.
- If you have more than one child in your family and their ages are far apart, if possible, you may want to speak with them separately at first in order to provide age-appropriate information. The older ones tend to appreciate that their younger siblings can’t process the same amount of detail. It's important that the differences in their relationships with the pet and how they grieve are respected and honored.
- If possible, give your children an opportunity to say goodbye to the pet — but think carefully about allowing them to be present for the actual procedure. Most veterinarians allow family members to be with their pets at the end, but this can be very difficult for some children to process, especially very young children.
- Help your kids create a positive last memory of their pet by allowing them to pet or cuddle him before the appointment. If they are present for the procedure or it happens at home, some also benefit from seeing the pet's body afterwards to help them better understand that it has completely stopped working or moving.
- Your child will likely ask what euthanasia is. Give the child enough information so they understand the pet’s condition, symptoms, and diminished quality of life. Explain that the pet is suffering (identify specific clear signs of it) and that the veterinarian has the ability to end that suffering in a very humane and gentle way with simple injections.
- Some kids display an intense curiosity about what happens to the body after death. This is natural. Be factual, while providing only as much detail as you feel they can handle. Analogies to other familiar processes can be useful. If you believe in a spirit or soul, you can explain that the pet’s body is kind of like the cocoon of a butterfly or the eggshell from which a bird hatches. When a pet dies, we still see its form but the spirit/energy is no longer there. If you don’t believe in an afterlife, you can compare the body to a leaf dropping from a tree and dissolving into the soil. Such familiar comparisons can integrate the loss into the broader context of life.
- If the pet is to be cremated, you can explain that the body will be put into a very warm container (metal, if they ask) until it turns into ashes (that are like sand, if they ask). You can assure them that the pet can longer feel anything, including the heat or any pain, and is at peace. Share with them that afterwards these ashes can be put into an urn to keep or scatter in a special place where you can go to remember them. For burial, describing the body being placed in a special box or blanket in a safe location in the ground is usually adequate. Children will often want to participate in some aspects of this ritual. Because they tend toward concrete thinking, they are relieved to know where the remains will be kept.
- People of all ages benefit from transitional objects, and because a child's distress can manifest especially at night, inviting them to take with one of the pet's toys, blankets, or even the collar to bed with them can help them relax.
- For as challenging as it can be at times, don’t shut down a child’s questioning or rush them. Let them know it's okay to ask about anything and then provide age-appropriate information as best you can. The answers a child makes up to fill in the blanks might be far worse than the truth.
- This one isn’t as obvious as it sounds — I say this because there are many aspects of death (and after it) that we’re simply not sure about, so we are tempted to make up answers, hoping they will satisfy them. So instead of giving a false statement or wild speculation, it’s fine to share what you do know and admit you’re not sure about the things you don’t.
- Don’t tell your child that you’re going to “put the dog to sleep” as a reference to euthanasia (use the real word instead). Likewise, if they see the deceased’s body, don’t tell them their pet is sleeping. Conflating death and sleep can be very disturbing for a child and result in an extreme reaction when someone is falling asleep, including themselves. Similarly, using the expression “put the cat down” is confusing. Finally, don't blame the vet in order to dodge tough questions. This will only create more challenges and cause them to distrust health professionals.
- Don’t be surprised if your child has formulated really wild interpretations about what is happening. For example, one five-year-old girl bragged to her classmates that her dog was dying and that she wanted him to be purple. She had heard her mother use the word, she interpreted it as “dye” instead.
- Don’t rush them. Because children tend to replay important and difficult life events over and over again, adults need to be patient with this healthy inclination as they work through these challenging realities.
Resources for You
- All children benefit from tangible hands-on activities to help them process major life experiences. Among the many meaningful options, we recommend they create their own RemembeRings. In addition to directly serving the child’s needs, they also provide a method for adults to open up dialogue with them. Because RemembeRings are comprised of two parts — one for holding on and one for letting go — they speak to a child’s drive for experiential learning and helps them become reconciled to their grief while celebrating the deep love shared with their pet.
- We offer a list of helpful children’s books here. A personal favorite is Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen.
- A tribute ceremony can also help, with family and close friends sharing stories about the pet. We include a more comprehensive list of other ways to memorialize a pet here.
Most of all, remember that each child is unique and that it’s best to follow their lead. Know that sometimes their healing happens in silence. This approach allows discussions to evolve naturally since it takes time for them to comprehend the nature of what is happening. Be honest and brief in response to questions, waiting to see if they are satisfied for the time-being, or still curious. With their active imaginations, they will have lingering questions long after you might expect. And finally, as the responsible adult coping with a difficult challenge, remember that you also deserve to heal through your grief for your furry friend, so create protected time in order to take good care of yourself as well. The Guidance tab on grief for Pet Parents may benefit your well-being.