Explaining the death of a pet to your child is never an easy discussion. The chances are high that losing a pet may be your child’s first experience with death and dying. It is natural as a parent to want to shield our kids from the harsh realities of life that cause them to feel anger, grief, and sadness.
As a parent, you want to teach your child how to deal with the unpleasant things that can (and will) happen to them at some point in their lives. Tender subjects such as death and illness may seem hard to talk about, but it is teaching them a life coping skill that they will need throughout their lifetime.
The most important thing to remember when explaining pet death to your child is to be honest about what has happened to the pet. Refrain from using such statements as “We put him to sleep”, or “He went away”.
Your child does not completely understand what those terms mean, and may become confused and afraid. He may not want to go to sleep or may worry that dad is going off to work and may never come back. The best approach is to use the correct terminology with words such as death, dying, and euthanasia.
Many children think that pets will be around forever. We know that pets do not live long lives, so at some point, you will be explaining pet death to your child. When you are ready to get a new pet, remind your child that it is not a replacement, but rather a new friend to love.
Explaining the Death of a Pet to your Child under age 2: Children under two years old have no concept nor the cognitive capability of understanding death. The response that children this age will have will be from watching and mirroring your emotional response. They will be sad because you are sad.
Explaining the Death of a Pet your Child Ages 2 -5: Children at this age tend to not understand that death is permanent. They know that the pet has gone away but may not fully realize that it is never coming back. This age group is egocentric, and they may miss the pet’s company, but may not have developed a genuine love for the pet.
It is a wonderful opportunity to share your feelings with your child because it lets them know that it is ok to be sad. Listen to your child’s questions then answer by responding honestly and gently. Be sure to keep answers short so your child can process what you are telling him.
Explaining the Death of a Pet your Child over Age 5: Children over the age of 5 tend to understand what death is but they may need help dealing with the loss. Sometimes, children may show regressive behaviors such as throwing temper tantrums or sucking their thumbs. They may become less social and their grades may drop off. It is a good idea to share the news of your pet’s death with your child’s teachers and other adults that are in contact with your child. They can help observe unusual behaviors and other changes in your child.
Encourage your child to talk about and remember your pet. Ask them to share what they liked most about him, and what they are going to miss the most. Have your child draw a picture of your pet and look at photos together. This may make your child sad, but it is a great way to help your child learn that death is sad but life goes on. Let your child know that death is a natural part of life and that no one is to blame.
It is important to keep your child’s activities and routines as regular as possible. Watch a movie together to keep them busy and their mind off of the death. You may plant a flower or tree in your pet’s honor, make a garden stone with the pet’s name on it or create a photo collage. If it helps your child, let them keep your pet’s tags, collars or special toy. If you need additional support in explaining pet death to your child, the Pet Loss Hotline sponsored by the ASPCA is (877) GRIEF-10.