Helping Kids Understand the Death of a Pet
If you are a pet owner, you will have to deal with the inevitable pain of losing your pet someday. 60 percent of Americans today are pet owners so many of us have to go through this. Whether your pet dies from old age, illness or an accident, it is a very difficult time. This difficult time can be made even more challenging when you have children. For most children, losing a pet will be their first experience with death. It is sad, so terribly sad to see your children miss their beloved furry sibling. However, you can use this life experience to teach your children about life and death, emotions, grief and healing. Your family can get through the loss of a pet together by being honest and honoring your deceased pet in a way that helps everyone move on.
Explaining Pet Death
Death is an abstract concept to a lot of children. Particularly to young children who have not developed a sense of time yet. Everyone will explain death to their children differently based on their religion or lack thereof, family history and personal experiences with death. However you want to explain death, one thing is certain, you should explain death to your kids when a pet dies. Do not lie to your kids to avoid the conversation about death. Do not tell them the dog went to live on a farm. Do not say the cat is sleeping. Do not buy another goldfish.
The key to explaining death to kids is to keep it simple and literal. Kids don’t do well with figures of speech. Saying a pet has “passed away” or “is no longer with us” is confusing. Here is a simple way to explain death to kids:
- Animals and people are all living things and all living things die.
- Living things die when they get very old or when their bodies stop working. Every part of our bodies has a special job to do to keep our bodies alive. When we get very sick or very old, some parts can stop working and cannot do their jobs anymore.
- When your body parts quit working and the doctors can’t fix them, you die. That sounds harsh because we overthink death, but it isn’t harsh and it is the truth.
- Kids need to know that death means that their pet is not coming back. Death means you don’t come home again. Explain death in a direct manner like this. Keep it simple and let your child ask questions.
You want to deal with pet death in a way that is age appropriate. The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement has a great guide for dealing with pet death at different ages.
- 2-3 year olds: Tell them the pet died and will not return. Make sure they know that they did not cause the death.
- 4-6 year olds: Process the feeling surrounding the pet’s death with frequent, brief discussions with children of this age.
- 7-9 year olds: At this point, kids know that death is permanent. Children in this age group may ask morbid questions about death. Answer them frankly and honestly.
- 10-11 year olds: Children begin to react to death in the same way as adults at this point. They may model their response after the response of their parents.
- Adolescents: Adolescents can be hyperemotional, appearing to not care one day and becoming incredibly distraught the next.
Acknowledge that the Pain is Real
If you are feeling a very real pain from the death of your pet, know that it was always going to be an awful thing to walk through. If you and your kids are sad, be sad. There is actual research to back up why pet death can feel so brutal. It can feel like a human has died when your pet dies because pets and their owners form a symbiotic relationship during their life together. When you are in a symbiotic relationship, you rely on the other person, or animal for our purposes here, to meet needs. The majority of pet owners also feel that their pet is a part of their family, not just an animal that lives in their household. We actually form an attachment with our pets similar to the attachment we form with our parents when we are young or with our friends and partners. Dogs specifically offer support and unconditional love to their owners, leading to this attachment. When we lose our pet, the attachment is severed and it can hurt like losing a human loved one.
Do not trivialize your child’s emotions around the death of a pet. Even if you think your child is too young to understand, give him space to grieve and be there for support, no matter how strongly or not so strongly he feels in the moment. Your child might feel like his pet was his sibling. With so many pets treated like children in families, this is fairly common.
The lesson of death is not an easy one to teach or to learn. Many adults still fear death or do not understand it. The best way you can guide your children through the emotions of a pet’s death is to be honest with your own feelings, letting them learn about the bereavement process as you go through it yourself.
When Euthanasia is The End
Pets die in all different circumstances. Euthanasia brings with it its own issues and you have to decide how to handle those issues with your children.
If you are reading this before deciding to euthanize your family pet and want more information about how to make that difficult decision and what to expect if you do euthanize, here is a great resource from the American Humane Association.
Once you have made the decision and appointment to euthanize your pet, you need to give everyone in your family the chance to say goodbye to the pet. This is where things can get complicated. How you handle this will differ depending on the age and maturity of your children.
- Preschool and Under: You want to give your children a chance to say goodbye to their beloved furry friend but young children like preschoolers will not understand the concept of euthanasia so you can’t really tell them exactly what is happening ahead of time. Consider this for preschoolers and older toddlers: When you know your pet is nearing the end of his life and are considering euthanizing, start talking about the fact that your pet is really sick with all family members. Explain that the vet cannot make the pet better, that the medicine isn’t working anymore. Explain death, as discussed above. Tell your children that you think that your pet is probably going to die soon because you talked to the vet and the vet said that the pet is not going to get better. Tell your kids that it is very sad but it isn’t scary and that when the pet does die, he will no longer be in pain. Before leaving for the final appointment, tell young kids that you aren’t sure if the pet will make it home from the vet because he is so sick. Let everyone say goodbye and then leave young kids with a babysitter so you can focus on comforting and saying goodbye to your pet in his final moments.
- Older Children and Teenagers: Older kids will have a stronger bond with a pet than little ones. They also have the ability to understand what is happening and you should tell them about the decision to euthanize. You can include them in the discussion. Older children and teenagers can learn about death and how we show mercy to our pets in the end. Let them choose how they want to say goodbye and if you think your children are mature enough, let them decide if they want to be present during the pet’s final moments. We read advice on this from several veterinarians and really the decision whether to have kids present comes down to whether they understand what is happening and will feel at peace with it. Know that when a pet is euthanized, it is not a scary situation. You know your kid better than anyone. Just know that it can be helpful for some older kids to be present so you do need to consider this.
With all kids, always answer any questions that they have about death and what is happening with the pet. The entire experience should be one of patience and openness. The more you share with your child and the more you model healthy emotions and grieving, the more peaceful this experience will be for your entire family.
A good book can open up a conversation and start your family on the journey to healing after pet death. Here is a list of books that are Daily Mom approved for learning about pet death and dealing with the emotions surrounding the death of a beloved animal, particularly for younger kids.
If you choose to explain the afterlife of your pet to your child to let them understand that while their pet is dead and not coming back, he is no longer in pain, The Rainbow Bridge Poem is a sweet tribute that adults and children will both find comfort in.
Memorializing Your Pet After Death
After your pet has died, whether unassisted or by euthanasia, your family can decide how you want to memorialize your furry loved one. It may be helpful to plan a goodbye ceremony or funeral for the pet, together. Ask your kids what they think would be a good way to remember and say goodbye as a family. Does anyone have a special song they want to play or sing? Will you pray? Maybe everyone in the family can take turns saying their favorite things about your pet out loud or everyone can share a favorite memory. If you are burying your pet’s remains, whether the body or cremated remains, having a small ceremony like this is a great idea.
You also have to decide if you want to create a physical marker where you buried the remains or even if you choose not to bury, do you want a special place in your yard to memorialize your pet? One idea is to paint a large rock as a marker in the yard. Young kids love to paint and this can be very therapeutic. Get some outdoor acrylic paint and some brushes and let your kids paint the rock in memory of their pet. An older child or adult can paint the pet’s name on the rock as well.
Another sweet way to remember a pet outside is to hang a wind chime in his honor. We love this Personalized Memorial Wind Chime. Every time you hear the chimes, everyone in the family can think of a happy memory of your pet.
As the weeks pass, it may get easier for some kids and for other kids, the finality of death may sink in more slowly and the sadness can hit them later. When your child is struggling with the death of their pet, encourage them to create something that will help deal with their emotions in a healthy way. Make a photo album or scrapbook together. Your child can cherish their album or book and will have it to look through whenever he is missing his pet. If your child is old enough to write, suggest that he write a letter to the pet to express how he is feeling now that his friend is gone. Writing is incredibly therapeutic. Adults should also consider the writing exercise as a way to deal with grief. Write letters together and share them with each other as a family. Any chance you have to model your grief in a healthy way will help your children through the process and help them deal with strong emotions later on in life.
Chances are if you read this post, you have a pet who is nearing his end or your pet recently died. Maybe your pet is still young and healthy and you read this to begin preparing yourself mentally for what will inevitably come at some point. Wherever you are in your journey with your furry family member, just enjoy your time together. If your pet has died, know that the pain is normal. It totally sucks. That’s all there is to it. Grief hurts and it is going to hurt until it doesn’t anymore. Remember that having a pet is a wonderful thing for a child. Our pets are loyal to the end. They bring us joy, they love our children and they teach us so many things in their own beautiful ways. Your child may be in pain now but you really did give him a gift by giving him a pet. Death is the last lesson that your pet will teach to your child, so honor your pet by letting your child learn everything he can through this sad time.
This post was written in memory of Atticus the pug. Atticus was an amazing dog who loved his human brother and taught him many lessons, including the toughest lesson in the world, dealing with death. Here is a letter written to Atticus on the night before he was euthanized.
If you are the owner of a healthy pet, keep him that way. Check out Houseplant Safety for Pets before adding any plants to your home.
Sources: Should My Kids Be Present When My Pet Is Euthanized, How Do I Talk To My Kids About Euthanasia? How Do I Support Them Through Pet Loss Grief?, Children and Pet Loss, When My Dog Died, I Didn’t Understand Why it Felt Like a Human Had Died. Then I Read The Research.
Photo Credits: Kristen D.
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