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10 Ways to Explain a Pet Dying to Kids

November 19, 2011

There is no right way to tell a child that their pet has died.  Every child is different and will respond differently.  The harder thing is when you think they aren’t going to be too upset because they knew it was coming and then they are extremely upset.  Make sure that you are loving and nice about it.  Don’t make it into a joke.  Telling little Johnny that his goldfish just got flushed is not the right way to explain that his pet fish died.  The more physical contact the child had to the pet the harder it is to accept their passing.  There is no way to completely eliminate tears and there’s no reason to want to, but you want to try to limit the trauma to the child if possible.

  1. If you are religious you can start by explaining your thoughts on afterlife.  Explain to your child that it was Fido’s time to go be with God.  Dogs only live so long depending on the breed and when it’s their time, they go to heaven and wait for us.  If you have family that has died you can say that Fido is with Grandma now and some day they will see them again.
  2. Explain to the child the cycle of life.  Rabbits are born, they grow up and when it’s their time they die and we bury them so that they can become one with the earth again.  Let the child know that they can visit the place where their pet was buried when they miss them.
  3. Tell your child that Buttons was sick and that she was in a lot of pain.  Help them to relate by having them think of a time when they were sick and how bad they felt.  Explain that sometimes when a pet gets sick there is nothing we can do to save them and the kindest thing we can do is let them die so that they aren’t suffering anymore. 
  4. Break the news to them as gently as you can and then be there to hold them when they cry.  Sometimes it’s better not to talk a lot.  Let them be sad.  Be there to listen if they want to talk about it.  There are stages of grief that people go through, denial, bargaining, anger, guilt, depression and acceptance.  With a child and a pet they may not go through all of the stages or they may progress through them rapidly.  Just be there to answer their questions and concerns.  Don’t get mad at them if they show signs of anger or blame you for the death of the pet.  You are an adult and you can take it.  Don’t try to be stoic either.  If you feel like crying over the pet do so.  Letting the child see you crying gives them permission to cry too.
  5. Read them a book about loss.  There’s a great book called “Throwing Away the Wrapper” by Bob Willis that will explain that only the pet’s physical body has died, but they still have their memories of the pet and they will live in their heart forever.  Children won’t understand why they can’t dig up their cat and give it a hug.  There is no understanding of decomposition.  Sometimes it is easier and wiser to let someone else’s words explain things so reading a book on the subject at their level is a good solution.
  6. Help your child remember the good times.  You can talk about all your good memories.  You and your child can make a scrapbook using all the pictures you’ve taken of the pet over the years and by writing down these stories and looking at the pictures you can explain that the memories of the pet will always be with the child and that no one can take them away.  Whenever they miss their pet they can go look at the scrapbook and always have a physical reminder of their treasured friend.
  7. If your child is very young (2-3) they don’t have the cognitive ability to understand everything pertaining to the death of a pet.  It’s best to keep things simple with toddlers and just explain that their pet has died and will not be coming back.  Make sure to let the child know that they have done nothing wrong and that it’s not their fault that death is something that we cannot stop.  Let it go at that and just be there to answer questions.  Experts have seen toddlers stop talking after the death of the family pet, but in time they will start talking again so don’t be alarmed and know that it is normal.
  8. When your child is a little older (4-6) they are better able to understand death, but often think of death as sleeping or something that is not a permanent condition.  Avoid telling your child that the pet was “put to sleep” or that “God has taken them” because this can cause the child to either think that the pet will eventually wake up and come back or develop an anger towards God because he took their beloved pet away.  You don’t want to cause either of those things to happen so just be honest without being brutal.  This age child could regress is their potty training, but again it’s only temporary so don’t get mad at them.
  9. An older child (7-9) understands more and will not tend to blame themselves, but may want to blame others for their loss.  Some children may become obsessed with death and trying to understand it.  Another possible outcome is that they will start thinking about death and then worry that everyone they know may die and become very scared.  A child like this may become clingy and not want to go to school for fear that when they come home someone will have died.  Just be open and honest with these children and make sure the answer their questions.
  10. Adolescents (10+) will respond to death much the way adults do by going through the stages discussed above.  Some children may refuse to show any emotion and become withdrawn at the loss of a pet.  Don’t push them, but just make sure that you are there as a soft place to fall.  When they do grieve don’t belittle them or tell them that it’s no big deal we will just get another one.  This was a friend to them and depending on the child it may have been their closest friend.  Treat this loss as a big deal and just remember to be honest with them. 



5 Responses to 10 Ways to Explain a Pet Dying to Kids

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Tabitha says:

I don’t really like the notion of telling a child that a pet has “gone to rest” or is “permanently asleep”, which I know is what a lot of people say to their kids. I think it’s better to be as honest as possible so that they are prepared to deal with the concept of death.

Nicole says:

Explaining to your child that their pet has died is NOT EASY. It’s so hard to watch them suffer, and nothing is going to take that sting away unfortunately :(

Alicia Nickles says:

The bond between a child and a pet is something so precious – it’s so important to never minimize your child’s feelings or try and rush him/her through the grieving process when a pet passes.

Jessica T. says:

We just had to explain the death of our dog to our 5 year old. I almost think it was harder to tell him than when I found out because it broke my heart even more to watch his heart break.

Marcia says:

These are great tips. Pets become family, and it’s never easy letting go of a family member.