Pets are beloved members of the family. When a pet becomes ill or passes away, it is a difficult time for the entire family. Children, depending on their maturity level, may struggle to understand what happened to their pet. As a parent, you will need to manage your own grief while also helping your child process their emotions. Your child might have questions you are not sure how to answer. Every child deals with grief in their own way.
You might be wondering how to tell your child about the death of a pet. How do you explain the pet’s death, whether it was natural, by euthanasia or as a result of a tragic accident? How do you comfort a child when you are experiencing grief, too? What if they ask questions you don’t know the answers to?
Helping a child through the grieving process can be challenging, but with children and pet loss, love, honesty and support are the most important things you can offer. Let them know it’s normal to grieve the loss of a pet, especially because pets are members of the family. In fact, 68 percent of American pet owners give their pets presents on Christmas. You and your child are not alone in your grief, and we are here to help you.
In this post, we are going to give you tips on how to approach your child during this difficult time, what you can expect your child to experience according to their age and ways you can help your child through the grieving process. We’ll also take a look at creative ways to memorialize your pet and pay tribute to their unique personality while expressing you and your child’s love for them.
Children & Pet Loss:
- How Age Affects Child’s View of Loss & Showing of Grief
How to Tell Your Child About a Pet’s Death
If you just took your beloved pet to be euthanized or have scheduled an appointment to do so, you’re probably wondering how you’re going to break the news to your child without breaking their heart. This may be your child’s first experience with death as well, making the process more difficult.
It’s painful to see your child upset, but it’s always best to be honest. If your child is too young to grasp the concept of death, you still want to tell the truth, but keep it as simple as possible.
If you know your pet does not have much time left, you can prepare ahead of time for what may come. If your child is unaware of the pet’s condition or death, preparation will still be important. When it comes to explaining pet death to a child, encourage your child to enjoy spending time with the pet and saying goodbyes. Children are more prepared to accept death if they know it’s coming, and they will feel relieved to know the animal is no longer suffering.
11 Tips for Telling Your Child About the Death of a Pet
If your child is unaware of the pet’s condition or death, here are some tips to help you deliver the truth while being gentle and supportive.
- Prepare for the conversation: Consider your child’s age, maturity level and relationship to the pet.
- Bring it up at home: Wait until you are in a place where your child feels comfortable and safe to have the discussion.
- Be honest: You want to prevent confusion and mystery for your child, so explain the pet has died. Let their reaction guide your next step. Not telling the truth will make the grieving process more difficult in the long run. Also, the child may feel responsible for the pet’s death if they don’t know the truth.
- Choose your words carefully: Children tend to take things literally, so it’s important to consider each word you say about the pet’s death. For example, when telling a child about putting a dog down, resist saying the vet put the pet “to sleep,” as this phrase might cause the child to fear sleep. Instead, say the doctor helped the pet die to ensure it was no longer in pain.
- Be brief: Answer their questions, but don’t give more information than is necessary. Although you want to be honest, avoid sharing details that could create traumatic images in their minds.
- Gently explain death was the best option: Let your child know the pet was never going to get better, and helping them die was the most loving choice.
- Explain most pets do not live as long as humans: For example, the average lifespan for dogs is eight to 15 years. Humans, on the other hand, can live up to 115 years.
- Be affectionate and comforting: Reassure your child that they are safe.
- Don’t hide your grief from your child: Let them know they are not alone, and you are sad too.
- Remember the happy memories together: Share stories about the pet, and look at pet photos with your child. Make sure your child knows the pet will not be forgotten.
- Let your child know you are always available: Reassure your child that no matter what, you are there for them to talk and to listen.
How a Child’s Age Affects Pet Loss Grief and What You Can Do as a Parent
Adults experience grief in five stages. Those are:
People do not experience these stages in any particular order, and some people don’t go through all of them. Children also feel different stages of grief, but they may not show or experience it the same way adults do. A child is more likely to show their grief through their behavior, rather than words.
It’s important to realize children grieve differently at different ages, too. For example, a 1-year-old is not likely going to experience a deep level of grief, but a 14-year-old who spent a lot of time with their pet may feel as if they lost their best friend. Nevertheless, support and love are the best ways to help every child cope with grief.
Here’s what to expect, how to help and recommendations for different childhood age groups. However, know these are general characteristics and do not apply to every child. Use your best judgment on how to help your child, because you know your child best. Don’t hesitate to seek extra support from a professional if your child seems overwhelmed.
Toddlers and Pet Loss
Toddlers mainly focus on getting their needs met and have an easier time moving on from loss. Still, very young children will absorb the emotions around them and need love and reassurance after the death of a beloved pet.
What You May Expect From Grieving 2- to 3-Year-Olds After the Loss of a Pet:
- They may not understand death is permanent.
- They may see death as a form of sleep.
- They may show grief through behavior such as eating or sleep disturbances.
- They may react to your emotions.
- They may believe the pet will return.
- They may repeat the same questions about the pet.
- They may search for the pet or call the pet’s name.
- They may usually accept death more easily at this age.
What to tell a toddler when a pet dies:
- Reassure them that everything is OK.
- Let the child know the pet’s death is not a result of something they’ve said or done.
- Be honest with the child and let them know the pet will not return.
- Be consistent with explanations.
- Give lots of affection.
- Keep discussions of death short and simple.
- Talk to the child frequently, even if you feel they can’t understand what you’re saying.
- Maintain the same routine you had with the pet and child. For example, still go for family morning walks.
- Help the child identify their feelings about the pet.
- Allow time for yourself to mourn, and ask friends and family for help if necessary.
Recommended books for a toddler grieving a pet’s death:
4, 5 & 6-Year-Olds and Pet Loss
Children in this age range tend to have some understanding that death is permanent, but they still cannot grasp the concept in depth.
What You May Expect From Grieving 4- to 6-Year-Olds After the Loss of a Pet:
- They may have difficulty separating fantasy from reality, though not as much as toddlers.
- They may see death as reversible or temporary.
- They may think they are responsible for the death.
- They may ask many questions about the death.
- They may experience nightmares or act out in violent play.
- They may wet the bed or experience eating or sleeping problems.
- They may see death as contagious and fear that they or another loved one will die.
What to tell a 4- to 6-year-old when a pet dies:
- Encourage your child to express their emotions through drawing, play and storytelling.
- Talk to your child briefly, and encourage them to share their feelings.
- Reassure them it is highly unlikely they are going to die anytime soon. Let them know that people usually die when they are old.
- Avoid using confusing language. Be honest and clear. Children at this age take things literally.
- Explain that the doctor helped the pet die because it was in so much pain. They do not understand euthanasia at this age.
- Assure them that the dog or cat did not feel pain when they went to the doctor. Depending on the child, you may be able to explain that the doctor gave the pet a needle that made the pet very sleepy and then stopped the pet’s heart.
Recommended books for a 4- to 6-year-old grieving the loss of a pet:
7, 8 & 9-Year-Olds and Pet Loss
7- to 9-year-olds are at an age where they understand death is permanent, and they will have a lot of questions about death and what happens after an animal dies. They may wonder if their pet is in heaven, or question the fairness of an animal’s death. Expect your child to ask challenging questions, and know it’s OK to be honest and say you don’t know the answer.
What You May Expect From Grieving 7- to 9-Year-Olds After the Loss of a Pet:
- They may be concerned a parent will die.
- They may ask a lot of different questions — some morbid and blunt — and be very curious about the details of the death.
- They may display their grief through problems at school or behavioral issues.
- They may cling to a parent or caregiver.
- They may struggle to accept that they are experiencing death.
- They may become obsessed with death-related questions and thoughts.
- They may act younger than their age as a result of grief.
- They may feel different than other children and become more vulnerable to bullying.
- They may believe their thoughts caused death and feel responsible or guilty as a result.
- They may experience anxiety and feel the world is unsafe and unpredictable.
- They may experience symptoms of grief later, rather than immediately.
What to tell a 7- to 9-year-old when a pet dies:
- Reassure the child that they did nothing wrong and didn’t cause the death in any way.
- If you had to have your pet euthanized, describe what euthanasia is and why it was necessary.
- Answer their questions honestly and as briefly as possible.
- Do not overwhelm them with responsibilities.
- Help them explore feelings of guilt or confusion.
- Seek help from school counselors or teachers if they are having trouble at school.
- Tell them no one knows for sure what happens after death and that it is one of life’s greatest mysteries.
Recommended books for a 7- to 9-year-old after a pet’s death:
- Good-Bye, Sheepie by Robert Burleigh
- Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie Page
- The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst
10, 11 & 12-Year-Olds and Pet Loss
10- to 12-year-olds will react to pet loss more like an adult. However, they are still unable to cope with grief in the same way a fully developed adult does. Therefore, they still need special care and attention to help them through the grieving process.
What You May Expect From Grieving 10- to 12-Year-Olds After the Loss of a Pet:
- They may understand death happens to all living things.
- They may look to adults as examples of how to act when grieving.
- They may have already experienced death, and the death of a pet may trigger painful memories of previous loss.
- They may think more logically than younger children.
- They may be more concerned with how other people think or feel.
- They may wonder if their grief is normal.
- They may fear death.
- They may think of suicide as a way to join the deceased pet.
- They may expect certain answers to their questions.
- They may still feel responsible for a pet’s death and may dwell on how they could have prevented the death had they done things differently.
- They may experience physical aches and pains or behavioral issues as a result of grief.
How to help older children cope with the loss of a pet:
- Be open to discuss any grief the child has experienced, be it past or present.
- Give them time and space to process their emotions.
- Reassure them that you’re always there to talk or listen.
- Answer their questions honestly.
- Encourage self-expression.
- Give them love and affection.
- Realize they may need support in school.
Recommended books for a 10- to 12-year-old when a pet dies:
- Kate, the Ghost Dog: Coping With the Death of a Pet by Wayne L. Wilson
- Memories of You: Pet Memory Book by Erainna Winnett
Adolescents and Pet Loss
Adolescents are at a difficult stage in their lives. They understand death but are still not emotionally mature enough to cope with grief on their own. Children in this stage of life need role models they can trust and depend on to help them work through hard-to-handle emotions and any guilt they may be feeling.
Also, pet loss is especially difficult for adolescents because they may have had a very close relationship with the pet. During the tough transition from child to young adult, adolescents often face challenges with friendships and find comfort in a friend they can always count on — the family pet.
Losing their pet creates a void in their life. In addition to loneliness, adolescents often juggle homework assignments with other social or sports activities and responsibilities. Therefore, it’s important to provide a lot of support for your adolescent and recognize any signs that they may be feeling overwhelmed.
What You May Expect From Grieving Adolescents After the Loss of a Pet:
- They may have a similar reaction to death as an adult.
- They may appear to have no feelings about the loss or seem overly emotional.
- They may want reassurance, but also to be treated as a mature adult.
- They may disagree or challenge you about how to experience grief.
- They may want to be alone.
- They may not turn to you for help, but seek comfort in friends or other sources.
- They may feel different from peers.
- They may feel embarrassed about their grief.
What to tell an adolescent when a pet dies:
- Encourage your adolescent to talk about their emotions.
- Engage in activities together you both enjoy, to encourage a space to talk openly and honestly.
- Give them time alone when they need it, and don’t pressure them to talk about their grief.
- Share your grief with them. Let them know they are not alone, and that you are struggling with sadness too.
- Share good memories you have of your pet.
- Encourage your adolescent to seek counseling if their grief is affecting their normal routine.
Recommended books for adolescents grieving the loss of a pet:
- Healing Your Grieving Heart for Teens: 100 Practical Ideas by Alan D. Wolfelt
- For Every Dog an Angel by Christine Davis
- The Grieving Teen: A Guide for Teenagers and Their Friends by Helen Fitzgerald
No matter the age, losing a pet is a life-changing event. If your child is experiencing nightmares, has increased anxiety, trouble sleeping, constant sadness, stomach issues or difficulty in school for more than a month, it’s probably time to reach out to a professional.
How to Help Your Child Memorialize Your Lost Pet
Grief is a process, and one way to help bring closure is to memorialize your pet. There are many excellent benefits to pet memorialization, such as:
- Gives your family a way to remember the good times
- Helps express grief
- Brings comfort to you and your children
- Provides a chance to bond with your child and share grief so neither of you grieves alone
12 Ideas to Memorialize a Pet You Can Do With Your Child
Here are some ways you and your child can celebrate your pet’s life and the joy they brought you.
- Write a letter to the pet: In the letter, let your pet know how much they meant to you and how much you’ll miss them.
- Write a song or a poem: Work with your child to express your feelings about your pet using the power of words.
- Paint a portrait of your pet: Spend time painting with your child, then hang your finished portraits in a special place.
- Create a photo album together: Compile pictures of your pet with your child and place them in an album made just for your pet.
- Create a special memorial garden for your pet: Your memorial garden may or may not be the place your pet is buried. You can build a pathway using memorial stones with painted paw prints or paw imprints. Decorate the garden with toys or statues that remind you of your pet.
- Make a picture book of your pet: Include short stories of the funny things your pet did, or your favorite memories together. Illustrate your book with photographs or drawings.
- Have a burial ceremony: Let your child be part of the process. Place the pet’s favorite toys at the grave.
- Spread cremains: If you had your pet cremated, spread the cremains in a meaningful location. Perhaps your pet had a favorite walking park, or maybe they loved a certain area of the yard.
- Create a pet memorial in your home: Have a special place in the home to display keepsakes, such as an urn or paw imprint, photos and other items to remember your pet by.
- Bake dog treats with your child: Give the treats to friends or family members in honor of your pet.
- Read a book with your child: Reading a book with your child will help you explore your emotions together. It may also help you answer your child’s questions. Some recommended picture books you can enjoy together include:
- Get a stuffed animal that looks like your pet: A stuffed animal may help comfort a younger child during their grief and allow them to process their emotions.
Memorializing your pet will help you and your child say goodbye without ignoring your grief. In simple ways, you can keep your pet alive in your heart forever.
Trust Agape Pet Services to Create Keepsakes Close to Your Heart
We understand how hard it is to lose a pet. You get up in the morning and hear silence when you used to hear a tail thumping against the floor, or paws padding across the carpet. You feel something missing from your home and your heart. We’re here to help you remember.
At Agape Pet Services, we want to help you preserve your pet’s uniqueness and all the little quirks you loved. We offer a variety of keepsakes, from pet cremation urns to pet cremation jewelry.
Losing a pet is a significant event in your family. Contact our compassionate team at Agape Pet Services today for cremation help or assistance finding the perfect memorial for your pet.