Talking to Children

For many children, the loss of a beloved pet is their first meaningful experience with death.  Knowing how to proceed will help them learn to express their grief in ways that are emotionally healthy.

Age-Specific Concepts

Age-Specific Concepts

Children two-years-old and younger may experience stress and grief but will be unable to pinpoint the source. Give them some extra love and attention during this time. 

Children 3 to 5 do not fully understand the permanence of death.  It may be necessary to explain the concept of permanence multiple times.

Children 6 to 8 are aware that death is permanent, but may feel it only happens to others, not to them or their pets.  As a result, they may feel resistance to the fact that their pet has died.

Children 9 to 11 are able to understand that death is inevitable, even for them, and the concept needs to be properly explored.

How to Proceed

Experts agree - it's important to talk to your child about their pet's death, and children should be encouraged to openly discuss their thoughts and emotions.  Internalizing feelings of sadness, guilt, or anger may result in destructive patterns of behavior in the future.  Be open and honest with your children about what has happened, and don't be afraid of their response.  Children are resilient but must be given the chance to process their emotions.

Key Guidelines

Key Guidelines

- Be as honest as possible.  Don't try to soften the blow or shield them from pain.  Explain to your child what happened to their pet.  Examples:  "Kitty was hit by a car and died," or "Bunny was very sick and died."

- Use direct language.  Use words like "death," "dying," or "dead."  Euphemisms are discouraged, including "went to sleep" or "went to a better place."  Many children will not understand the symbolism and may become afraid to go to sleep at night or wonder why their pet chose to leave.

- If possible, encourage children to view their pet's body.  This gives children a sense of closure and allows them to say goodbye in a comfortable manner.  They may choose to hold or stroke their pet, or stand back and quietly observe.  If applicable, make an effort to clean any blood from the pet's fur, remove medical equipment, and position the pet in a soothing manner.  Placing the pet in a container lined with a soft blanket is encouraged.

- Consider involving your child in their pet's euthanasia process.  Talk to your veterinarian about what he or she recommends in this instance, and, when possible, allow children to make their own decisions.  Some may wish to be involved and present during the euthanasia process, while others may prefer to view the body after the pet has died.

- Let them know they are not at fault.  Children may worry that their actions or thoughts caused their beloved pet to die.  Explain to them that this is not the case.

-Share you beliefs.  Children may ask where their pet has gone, or what happens to their pet now that they are dead.  This is your opportunity to share with your child what, if any, beliefs you hold of an afterlife.  Common questions include, "Will I ever see my pet again?"  "Does my pet have a spirit?" or "Where did my pet go?"

- Remember that it's okay to cry.  Crying in front of your child conveys that you love and miss the pet, too.  Showing emotion is a comforting, healing experience for you both.

- Allow time for grief.  Children have shorter attention spans than adults and may express their grief in short bursts because they are less likely to sustain intense emotion for long periods of time. It is normal for a child to be crying one minute and playing happily the next.  This is not a sign of indifference or poor coping skills - it's simply the way many children work through their grief. 

-Don't rush the process.  Grief has no timetable.  Also, don't assume that it is your responsibility to cheer them up.  Children need time to process and explore difficult emotions.

-Get creative.  Many children benefit from creative endeavors, including writing poems or stories, drawing pictures, or making a memorial. 

Consider Holding a Service

Definitely consider holding a memorial service or funeral for you beloved pet, and keep the ceremony as informal, short, and simple as you wish.  Studies show that rituals such as these provide closure and allow children to practice expressing their feelings and emotions in the presence of others.