When a Pet Dies
The death of a pet is often a child's first real experience with loss. The loss of a beloved family pet is upsetting for everyone but can be especially difficult for children.
While you cannot shelter kids from the loss of a pet, you can help them cope. And because a pet's death might be their first time losing a loved one, the grieving process can help kids learn how to cope with other losses throughout life.
Sharing the news
One of the most difficult parts about losing a pet may be breaking the bad news to kids. Depending on the age and maturity level of your children, try to gauge how much information they need to hear.
If your pet has been sick
If your pet is very old or has been suffering from a long-term illness, consider talking to your kids before the death occurs. If you have to euthanize your pet, you may want to explain that the veterinarian has done everything he or she can, your pet would never get better, that this is the kindest way to take the pet's pain away and that your pet will die peacefully, without feeling hurt or scared. Be careful about saying the animal went "to sleep" or "was put to sleep." Young kids are very literal and this wording could cause them to become scared of going to sleep or having surgery or anesthesia. If a pet's death is sudden, calmly explain what has happened. Be brief, and let your child's questions guide how much information you provide.
Don't gloss over the truth
Stories about "Spot went away to live at a farm," or "Buddy went on a trip" are not a good idea. Lying will not ease the sadness of losing a pet, and if your child discovers you lied, he or she may be angry with you.
If your child asks what happens to your pet after it dies, you can draw on your own understanding or beliefs about death and if relevant, the viewpoint of your faith. It's also OK to reply with an honest "I don't know," and tell kids that none of us know fully what happens after death, that death is a mystery.
Helping your child cope
Children will experience a range of emotions when dealing with the loss of a pet. In addition to sadness, your child may feel lonely, guilty, or even angry, especially if your pet had to be euthanized. Let your child know that all of the feelings he is experiencing are OK, and you are here for him if he wants to talk about it, but that not talking about it is OK too. Don't feel like you or your spouse need to hide your grief about losing your pet either. It will comfort them to let them know they are not alone in feeling sad.
Moving on and remembering
After the shock of losing your pet has eased, it's important to help your child heal and move on. There are many ways to help your child do this, such as creating special ways to remember your pet, whether it's having a ceremony to bury your pet or just sharing funny stories or looking at photos of your pet. Let your child know that while the pain will eventually go away, the happy memories of your pet will always remain.
Getting a new pet
When the time is right, you might consider adopting a new pet — not as a replacement, but as a way to welcome another animal friend into your family to enrich all your lives.