Talking to Children About Pet Death

Posted: Aug 24, 2012
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The death of a beloved family pet is often a child’s first experience with loss. This sad event, when handled in a sensitive manner, is an opportunity to create a healthy foundation for future losses.

There is no perfectly right way to approach this sensitive subject, but it’s important that when a pet dies or death is anticipated, parents explain things openly and honestly at the child’s level of understanding. As much as parents would like to protect their children from feeling sad, including them is a valuable life experience.

When parents tell their child about the death of their pet, they must be prepared to answer questions. They don’t have to provide every detail, but it is helpful to tell them in simple terms what happened. This information will help them to begin processing the concept of life and death. When avoiding answers to questions, the child's imagination may create images that are more scary or gruesome than the truth.

Assure parents that when they listen carefully, the child will let them know how simple or detailed their answers need to be. Encourage the parents to answer honestly about the physiology of death; for example, now that the pet is dead, his heart, mind and body are not longer working. The pet no longer breathes or moves. The pet’s body is no longer warm, but cold. Many parents choose this time to share their spiritual beliefs about afterlife.

I like to emphasize to parents that is important to use the words “died” or “death” with children of all ages. If they tell their young child that their pet went to sleep and didn’t wake up, the child may begin to fear bedtime, afraid that they might experience the same fate. Young children are literal and don’t always understand euphemisms like “went to sleep”, or “God took her.”  It is very important that parents literally say the pet has died.

I urge parents to encourage their child to express their emotions freely. Not giving the opportunity to share feelings can lead to behavioral issues and may prevent them from completing their mourning. Tell parents that allowing their child to see them cry and grieve will show them that expressing emotions is okay. When a parent shares their grief with their children they create an opportunity to communicate and bond through the shared experience.

Children are resilient. By sharing this sad event with them with sensitively and honestly, parents will find that they are helping children process their own grief in a healthy and successful way.

 

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Comments

Shanna Wynne's picture

This is great. I have a five month old daughter and she is my first. We are a dog family and plan on staying that way so eventually we are going to have to deal with the loss of the pet and I was so unsure about how to handle that with her. Its unavoidable sadly and something everyone with a child will eventually have to face.

Stacey Carlisle's picture

Thank you for your words of wisdom! Is there a part two coming? I have been in vet med for 20 years in a variety of positions, now a manager! Last fall I had the unfortunate situation of having to euthanize our only two cats (for different reasons) three months apart. We have two young sons (3 and 5 at the time) that I then had to explain that they had died. The thing I struggled with was how to have them say goodbye beforehand to these longtime feline family members without having to tell them that this was our choice to do this. I ended up not telling them ahead of time, just explaining that they died at mommy's work and that we would all miss them lots. I had tried to prepare them for the second one (which was a very old cat and we knew was coming) but the first was unexpected. No matter when and how the death of a pet happens it is always painful. Having children that trust me to help "make them better" made the loss of both cats a little bit worse. I look forward to reading future blogs on the four mentioned topics!

Destinie Lowry's picture

Hello Stacey,
I also have a 3 year old and I can not imagine having to explain this to him. Was there anything that you would advice doing now that you know what to expect?

Thanks!