For many children (heck, for many adults too!), losing a pet feels akin to losing a family member or close friend. Pets are often the first ones to greet us when we return home, and they’re great sources of comfort when we’re feeling down or stressed. Kids can really come to depend on their furry friends quite a bit, and it hurts when that relationship comes to an end. Pet loss is also often a kid’s first-ever experience with death, which may bring up lots of questions and confusion for them. While it’s not possible to shelter children from the sadness and pain, we can certainly help them cope with it.
I regularly receive questions from parents who are navigating this very subject. If you landed on this page, you may very well have some of the same questions! Below I’ve provided my typical answers to these tough questions.
Is my child even old enough to understand what’s happening?
This answer greatly depends on your child’s age. Children develop at different rates, but generally speaking:
- Children 4 and under are going to have little-to-no understanding of death. Even after clearly being told “Susie” has died and is not coming back, they may continue to ask for her.
- Children 5-6 are probably going to have a better understanding that their pet is not coming back anytime soon, but may be holding out a secret hope that they’ll return “someday.” They may also believe that Susie is perhaps alive and well somewhere else, away from them.
- At ages 7-9, children typically understand the irreversibility of death, but may still believe that it won’t happen to them. They may also develop worries about loved ones dying.
- Children 10 and up understand that death is irreversible and universal. Their reactions to the death will look more like an adult’s.
At any of these ages, pet death may bring about all kinds of questions about life and death in general. It’s best to answer these honestly so as to not further compound their worry and confusion.
Our pet hasn’t passed yet, but is very old and ill. How can we start the conversation about what’s coming?
With any hard topic, the best advice is to move slowly and speak simply. In other words, don’t overwhelm with them with multiple sentences to process at once. Use honest (but gentle) wording, and leave lots of space for your child to react and ask questions.
An example: “As you know, Mr. Furry can’t hear or see us well anymore. His body is very old, and isn’t working well. (pause) Soon, Mr. Furry’s body will stop working at all, and he will die. That means he won’t be here in the house with us, and won’t be coming back.”
Be prepared for a range of reactions from your child, which will depend not just on their personality and closeness to the pet, but on their respective age as well. Some children react not with sadness, but with anger (the phrase “shooting the messenger” comes to mind), which can be surprising for parents. Because little ones don’t understand the permanency of death, they may not react much at all.
Saying “dying” or “dead” feels a little harsh. Can I just say that our pet is passing away, or going to Heaven?
Using vague terms like this might feel easier for you to say, but it doesn’t make it easier for your child to process. Children don’t understand what phrases like “passing away” mean. They may continue to believe that their pet will return to them one day, and their pain can be worsened when that doesn’t happen.
Avoid euphemisms, and instead be clear and concise in your language. Once you’ve made the initial announcement, it’s okay to comfort your child with images of Fido in Heaven, if that’s appropriate for your family.
Please avoid outright lying to your child, such as to say the pet went to “live on a farm.” These lies almost always have a way of coming out later, and your child will (rightfully) feel betrayed.
How do we talk about euthanasia?
Use your child’s age and level of emotional maturity as your guide. Children on the younger end are not going to be able to grasp the concept, and your best bet might be to simply tell them that their pet has died after the fact. You can offer more information when they get older.
Older children will likely appreciate being included on the details. Explain that you (and the veterinarian) agree that Brownie’s body is very sick/old, and is not going to get better. Euthanizing is the kindest option in Brownie’s case and is a way of showing him love. If your child wants more information about how euthanasia will work, it’s okay to proceed carefully. (Make sure you’re using accurate information – ask your vet if you’re uncertain!)
As a side note, it may be best to avoid using language like “put to sleep.” Little ones might worry that they or loved ones will be in danger when they go to sleep at night. If you do use that phrase, make it very clear that it’s not the same thing!
Can our child be present when our pet is euthanized, or is that too much?
If your child is old enough for you to discuss the concept of euthanasia with (see above) and they wish to be there for it, it’s okay to include them. Be as clear as you can be about what will happen on the day, and include what feelings they may experience. Bring along a comfort item and have a Plan B just in case they decide midway through the process that they want to leave. (Perhaps a grandparent can sit in the waiting room with them, for example.)
Do you have any tips for telling our children that our pet has died?
- Have the conversation in a quiet and calm place, free from distractions like cell phones or TV.
- Whether you’re notifying your children about a euthanasia appointment or a pet that has already passed, you want to have this conversation sooner rather than later. Please don’t feel like you need to “have your emotions in check” before you say anything. Pet loss is sad, and it’s okay to normalize that for your children.
- Again, start simply and give your child time to process. That might look like starting with, “Birdie died this morning. Her body was old and it stopped working.” Let them guide the conversation with their own questions.
- If your kids are relatively close in age (let’s say 4 years or less apart), you can break the news to them together. If one child is significantly older than the others, you might consider having a conversation with them separately, or at least check in with them one-on-one later. The idea is to give older children a chance to ask hard questions and process their feelings without fear that younger siblings will be frightened (or a distracting force).
- Let them know however they feel about this is okay. Normalize sadness, anger, fear, and even relief.
Our pet died four months ago. Why is our kid still asking where they’ve gone?
Although these questions are hard for US to hear and respond to, just know it’s NOT a sign that your child isn’t grieving properly, or that you’re not going a good job of explaining it. Children truly do learn through repetition! Just like they had to practice their ABCs over and over again before it set, they may need to “practice” making sense of where their pet has gone.
Continue to respond to those questions calmly and directly, such as, “Brownie died, so he isn’t here with us anymore. He isn’t going to come back.”
Alternatively, you may notice death-related themes in your child’s play. This is also normal!
How do we know if it’s crossed the line from normal grief/processing into a concern?
If your child exhibits any of the following (past the initial few weeks after the death), you may want to consult with a mental health professional:
- Regression (suddenly having potty accidents after being fully trained, for example)
- Increased crying
- Difficulty sleeping / reporting nightmares
- Separation anxiety
- Older child is directly asking to talk about it with someone