Pets are so much more to kids than animals. They’re often their best friends, and some children even view them as their siblings, especially those that have been with them their whole lives. When a pet passes away, it’s a major event in a child’s life, especially if it’s the first time she has dealt with death.
In a perfect world, parents would be able to wave a magic wand and take their children’s anguish away. While easing your child’s heartache obviously isn’t that simple, preparing her for the loss and taking steps to enable her to work through her grief will help her accept and cope with a pet’s death in a healthy, productive way.
Talk to Your Child About a Pet’s Sudden Death
There are devastating scenarios where our companions die without warning, which doesn’t allow parents the opportunity to talk to their kids about their impending loss. Although the conversation might be even more intense than one that prepares a child for a pet’s euthanization, the tips below, which discuss how to talk to your child about her imminent loss, will also be helpful in breaking the news of a pet’s sudden death.
It’s important to note that in this scenario, kids may have even more questions about death than they would if you were preparing them for a loss. Your child may worry that her other loved ones, both human and animal, will suddenly die. As uncomfortable as it may be, try to address her fears in an honest, but age-appropriate, way. Sharing your beliefs on what happens after we die may bring her some comfort. If nothing else, explain that while death is a natural part of life, your child, you and your spouse or co-parent, and your family (including your remaining pets) will all live long, healthy lives, and death isn’t something she needs to fear.
Prepare Your Child for the Loss
If your pet is in poor health, you may make the heartbreaking decision to end his suffering. In this case, it’s important to warn your child about the upcoming loss whenever possible so she can say goodbye to her beloved companion. These tips will help you and your family have a sensitive but productive discussion about why this is necessary and what to expect in the days to come.
Set Aside Special Time for Your Conversation
This difficult discussion shouldn’t be rushed, so be sure to pick a time when no one has anything on their to-do list; right after dinner is a good time for most families. Even if you don’t have a lot to say, your child probably will, and she needs to know that she has your undivided attention to answer all of her questions and help her begin to cope with this devastating news.
Likewise, keep the environment clear of distractions during your talk. The TV should be turned off and everyone’s cell phones put away so all focus is devoted to having a meaningful conversation.
Use Gentle, Age-Appropriate Language
The best language to use will depend on your child’s age, maturity, sensitivity level, and closeness to the pet. Think back on other tough discussions you’ve had with your little one, and try to emulate the terminology, tone, and talking points that went over well. While each child is unique, variations of these phrases will generally allow for a constructive conversation:
- “This wasn’t an easy decision, but it’s what’s best for Pet, because we all love him so much and don’t want him to be in pain anymore.”
- “It’s no one’s fault that this is happening. Pet is very old and he lived a long and wonderful life with our family. His body just isn’t working like it used to.”
- “It’s OK to be sad. I am, too, and I know none of use will ever forget Pet.”
While you should use terminology appropriate to your child’s age, avoid euphemisms that sugar-coat the pet’s death. Telling kids that a dog went to sleep and isn’t going to wake up can frighten them and cause them to worry about not waking up when they go to sleep. Even the term passed away can be confusing for young children who have never experienced the death of a loved one. It may sound harsh, but saying a pet died rather than passed away is usually a better approach, but you’ll need to explain what it means to die. You can describe the concept succinctly by explaining that it means your pet’s body stopped working because he was very old or very sick.
It’s also important to make sure your child understands the permanency of death. Try not to say anything that will lead her to believe that her beloved pet will someday return, like telling her your furry friend ran away. Doing so makes it very difficult for kids to come to terms and ultimately cope with the death.
Answer All Questions as Best as You Can
No matter their ages, kids will most likely have questions about the death of a pet. Your child may want to know more about:
- The nature of your pet’s illness or condition
- What happens when a pet is euthanized
- What happens after someone dies
While you may not have every answer she’s looking for, do your best to give some kind of response, even if it’s broad and ultimately leads to another discussion. For example, if this experience is her first with death, this is a great opportunity to talk about any religious or personal beliefs you have regarding what happens after someone dies.
Finally, keep in mind that if she asks questions you simply don’t have answers to, it’s OK to say, “I don’t know.” Depending on her age, she may accept that you don’t have a solution, or she may ask you to help her find one.
It’s OK to show your emotions (after all, you’re losing a beloved family member, too), but try to remain calm enough to clearly and thoroughly share this conversation with your child. Explaining the situation between sobs will most likely get her worked up and will probably prolong the discussion.
While you should be honest, most kids don’t need to know every detail about the loss of a pet. For example, it might be too much for a child to learn that the reason you have to let go of your companion is because you can’t afford to spend several thousand dollars to treat his illness.
Similarly, an in-depth explanation of what happens during euthanization may be more than a child can bear. A simple description like, “The doctor will give Pet some medicine, which will allow him to die peacefully without any pain,” is a good way of keeping it short and to the point without using confusing or misleading language.
Emphasize It’s Not Your Child’s Fault
Kids have a tendency to blame themselves for a pet’s death, and they often use reasoning that is in no way connected to the loss. For example, your child might think that if she’d taken your dog for walks more often that he would still be alive, because he would have gotten more exercise. Similarly, if your senior cat died around the time your little one made the case for getting a new kitten, she may feel a sense of responsibility. Whatever the case, make it completely clear that your pet died because it’s a natural part of life, not because of something your little one did.
If She Wants to Be, Allow Your Child to Be with Your Pet in His Final Moments
A teen or tween who has grown up with the pet may want to be there when he crosses the Rainbow Bridge, and in most cases, you should let her. It’s a way for her to recognize and ultimately accept the death, and knowing she was with your critter to the very end may bring her some comfort as she grieves.
Younger kids may also ask to be present during your companion’s final moments, but carefully consider whether this would truly be best for your child. If you think she’s too young for this type of experience and might feel traumatized by it, it may be best to let her know that Mommy or Daddy will be the one to take care of your pet at the end of his life.
Offering your child a simple explanation of euthanasia (as discussed above) may help her decide if being present for the procedure is something she wants to do. It’s also a good idea to ask your vet to describe how your pet may react; although pets are given a sedative that makes the process painless, your child will feel better knowing that any movement by or sounds from your companion don’t mean he’s in pain.
Keep in mind that if the whole family wants to be present during the final goodbye, in most areas, you can hire a veterinarian to come to your home to help your pet pass away peacefully. This might be a more comfortable situation for your kids than going to a clinic; they’ll be in their home environment with all of their comfort items nearby, and if it gets to be too much, they can take a break in their room.
Help Your Child Cope with the Loss
After your pet passes (and quite possibly, even before), your child will begin the grieving process. Especially if this is the first time she’s experienced this emotional journey, the toll her mourning takes on her (and you) will be significant. The silver lining is that there are many things you can do to bring her some comfort.
First and foremost, talk to your child about what you can do to help mend her broken heart. For example, she may have specific ideas about how she’d like to memorialize your pet, or she may ask to adopt a new critter to ease her pain. Whatever she does or doesn’t say, these strategies can help your child cope with her loss.
Honor Your Pet
There are countless ways you can honor your pet’s memory. Ask your child what she’d like to do, or offer suggestions. Holding a burial service, setting up a space in your home dedicated to the pet, or planting a tree in his honor are all helpful ways to help your child say goodbye while allowing your companion’s spirit to live on in your hearts.
Talk About Your Departed Pet
It may feel counterintuitive to bring up a pet you’ve lost, but you’ll help keep his memory alive by talking about him. Follow your child’s lead; if she wants to have a conversation about him, join in. As much as possible, try to keep the focus on all of the good memories, especially if your little one tends to talk mostly about sad ones. If a human family member passed away, you wouldn’t pretend he never existed, so take this same approach with your furry (or not-so-fuzzy) friend.
Allow Your Child to Be Emotional
Watching a child express sadness, anger, or confusion is agonizing for parents, but it’s important to let kids experience their difficult feelings. It helps them develop emotional maturity, and actively going through the grief process is the only way they’ll ultimately move on from their loss in a healthy way. Your child may spend weeks or even months feeling upset, and that’s normal. Help her navigate her grief by allowing her to express herself and comforting her however you can.
Treat Changes in Behavior with Compassion
You may notice a change in your child’s behavior, which may include anything from having a decreased appetite to not being interested in schoolwork or her favorite activities. She may also act out in ways she never has before, perhaps by having unprovoked outbursts or refusing to settle down come bedtime. Although you should still take appropriate disciplinary measures, try to remember that your child is reacting to the death of a family member. She’s not necessarily trying to misbehave or be difficult, and her new behavior is more than likely only temporary.
Talk to her about the concerning behavior using open-ended and non-accusatory questions, such as:
- “You haven’t wanted to go to the playground at all this week. Why is that?”
- “You were doing such a great job in math this year, but it seems like it’s been harder for you lately. Why do you think that is?”
- “We used to have so much fun reading bedtime stories together, but it doesn’t seem to help you fall asleep anymore. What other activity would help you feel more relaxed at night?”
It may take some prodding, and you may have to directly ask, “Is this behavior happening because you’re sad about Pet?” Your child still may have a difficult time verbalizing her feelings, or she simply may not want to talk about it. However, letting her know you’re ready to talk about it whenever she is and that you understand what a difficult time she’s going through will be very reassuring and may help resolve the issue.
Be Open About Your Sadness
Parents want to be strong for their kids, but when your family has suffered a loss, it’s important for children to know that grownups are experiencing many of the same feelings they are. Talk to your child about your own sadness whenever the opportunity presents itself. When she talks about how much she misses your pet, empathize with her. A simple, “I understand, because I wish he were still here, and I’m so sad he’s not,” validates that her emotions are normal, because you’re feeling them, too.
Choose the Right Time to Bring Home a New Pet
Your family will probably consider getting a new pet at some point. It’s important to make sure your little one is ready for this step, and if you have more than one child, understand they may have different timelines for when they want to get a new one. This can be a frustrating scenario, and it’s important to compromise if you can. For example, if your youngest is begging for another dog but your teenager isn’t ready for one, perhaps your youngest would be happy with a smaller critter, like a hamster or rabbit, until the whole family is ready for another pooch.
If and when you decide to bring home a new pet, instill the idea that this new animal isn’t meant to replace the one you lost. You’re creating a new bond with a new pet that will bring abundant joy to your household, but no animal will ever take the place of the one you lost. Helping your kids understand this concept will help them embrace any new critter that joins your family.
In truth, helping a child grieve the loss of a pet is a heartbreaking experience for parents. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself during this time as well; you’re also experiencing a significant loss, one made tougher having to watch your child endure it. While it will be a difficult journey for every member of your family, know that with your love and support, your little one will find peace, and she may even open her heart to bringing home a new companion someday.