Losing Your Best Friend: How To Talk To Children About the Loss of Their Pet

by A-Badgero
it is best to explain a pet's death to children by being honest and letting them know the pet has died not gone away.

Parents should be careful not to give children hope that their pet is coming back by using euphemisms for death such as “he’s gone away” or “she’s sleeping”. Photo by Freerk Lautenbag.

Many people say that they are so close to their pets that they consider them part of the family. Well fundamentally they are. Family pets offer company to the lonely, loyalty in the form of unconditional love, comfort to the sad and a playmate for those who are young at heart. The benefits of having a pet have become so prevalent that many nursing homes have brought in dogs to visit the residents.

The one thing that differentiates your pet from the rest of your family members is their short life expectancy. More often than not you will outlive your pet.  With this animal being such a large part of your life it can be very difficult when they pass. What can be even more difficult is explaining the loss of a pet to a child.

In their innocence children, depending on their age, have very little understanding of death. The loss of a family pet is usually their first brush with death.  It is very important that this major event in their lives be explained properly otherwise it can have a long-term affect on their understanding of death and/or dying.

Most young children live with the assumption that their friendship with their pet will be everlasting.

Young children think in very literal terms so you want to avoid using metaphors or euphemisms. Saying things like “Scruffy is sleeping or he is gone to a better place” may cause confusion or they may not grasp the fact that they are not coming back. This confusion could then turn to fear, fear of sleeping or worry when loved ones go away for a while. Statements such as “God took your pet because he was special” could cause a resentment towards God or if they discover you are being untruthful it could cause a distrust between parent and child.

Honesty is the best policy. To be completely clear use the words “death” and “dying” and give a straight forward definition of what it means. If the pet died of old age explaining that a body eventually stops working is a good approach. The most important thing is that they understand that death is final.

Depending on your beliefs you may want to explain the concept of a soul. Holding a memorial service for the pet where the family can say a formal good bye can ease some of the pain and help to start the healing process. It can also be helpful to encourage them to express their feelings, talk or write about the fun times they had with their pet. Let them know they are not alone.  That you loved that pet too and are grieving with them.

Encourage them to ask any questions they may have and answer them gently but honestly. Keep in mind that children’s questions often sound much more complex then they actually are. A child asking where someone who passed is now is not necessarily asking if there is an afterlife and would most likely be satisfied with a straight forward answer such as they are in the cemetery or depending on your beliefs “They are in Heaven.”

Parents’ may want to try and heal their child’s hurt by rushing out and buying a new pet, however, this could cause more damage than good giving the wrong impression that the pet who was seen as a “family member” is easily replaced.

Childrens who are a bit older, ages 6-10, often have a better grasp on death as something that is permanent. Often kids at this age personify death with “the boogeyman” or a magical being that they can possibly bargain with. This is the time in their lives where they really start to see a connection with what they think and what happens.

For example if a young child is resenting having to care for a pet they may secretly wish that the pet would die, if by coincidence something happens to the pet the child may be consumed by an overwhelming feeling of guilt.  Make sure to assure them they did not cause the death and there was nothing they could have done to change what happened.

How the child reacts to the loss depends on their age and maturity level. Younger children may regress to behaviors they have already grown out of (sucking their thumb, temper tantrums etc.). Children may also develop some separation anxiety, they reason “If a pet can die so can my parents”.  Older children may react as an adult would, withdrawing from friends and family for a while. Kids 10 and up often experience the normal stages of grief; denial, bargaining, anger, guilt, depression and then acceptance.  Be sure to inform your children’s teachers of their loss so they can show understanding if the child is behaving differently.

Everyone deals with death in their own way the best you can do is to be there to support them, answer any questions and to sympathize with the way they are feeling. Eventually all children will experience death in some way, it is just the natural progression of life. If their first experience with death is handled appropriately they will be better prepared for dealing with it throughout their lives. They will be able to reflect on their lost ones with love more than hurt.

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