The relationships we build with our pets are some of the deepest connections we have in our lives. That’s why the loss of a pet is never easy and can leave us wondering how we can move on. It’s important to acknowledge the grief and sadness you feel. This is a normal reaction to a great loss.
There’s no question that your pet is a member of the family, especially in the eyes of your child. For some little ones, your family cat, dog, hamster, or fish has been with them since day one. They’ve built their lives around caring for them and know them as part of the family. Helping children through the death of a pet can feel like an impossible task, but there are compassionate ways to support their healing journey, as well as your own.
This can make the initial conversation especially confusing for them, so it’s important to consider a few tips for helping them through the grieving process.
- Be Straightforward and Honest
When, and how, do you tell children that their pet passed away? Experts say that honesty is always key. Kids need to feel that their parents are clear and open from the beginning. Every child will react differently depending on their age and development. No matter their reaction, support and encourage them to accept feelings as they come.
As adults, we often use indirect language to speak about death. This can be particularly confusing for children who may be afraid or unaware of what death really means. To help make the conversation clearer for your younger ones, try to avoid using language like “they passed away” or “they moved on.”
Begin by gently explaining that their pet died and when it occurred. If the child is under five, very calmly explain that this means your pet is no longer with you and will not be coming back. Use your discretion about the details of their passing depending on your child’s age. Give them a moment to let the information sink in and then let them guide the conversation with their own questions. This will help clarify both what they need and how much information they’re ready to hear.
Be clear that any emotions or questions that arise are completely normal and you’re there for them whenever they’re ready to talk.
It’s very normal for your child to have lots of questions. To prepare for the initial conversation or conversations to come, consider a few of the most common questions children ask after learning that their pet has passed:
- Will I ever see my pet again?
- Is this my fault?
- Is death forever?
- Why did they die?
- Will our other pets die?
- Where is my pet now?
As we mentioned earlier, use your discretion regarding the details of their passing. Always leave out anything that could be more upsetting or depict the pet’s pain in the end. Instead, redirect the conversation to clarify that they’re no longer in pain.
You can also ask questions to direct them toward working through their thoughts. Try to only encourage this if you feel they’re having a hard time expressing their grief.
- Can you name the feelings you have right now?
- Do you have any questions about what happened?
- What are some things you loved about your pet?
- Can you tell me your favorite story about them?
- Offer Comfort
Learning about grief is just as important as sharing the news itself. Everyone responds differently and in different phases, so it’s important to let your child know that there’s no right or wrong way to heal.
If your child doesn’t seem sad at first, try not to push them in the direction of feeling a certain way. They may not be able to process the concept of their pet being gone until a few days in.
Remind them that you’ll also likely feel sad, angry, and confused — you can work through this together. If there’s something they’d like to do in the moment to bring themselves comfort — such as going for a walk, getting some rest, or spending time with a friend — encourage them to express themselves.
- Provide Resources
Consider turning to activities that you can do as a family to help with the grieving process. These may include reading children’s books, watching movies, or listening to podcasts that deal with the topic of losing an animal. Connecting with characters or hearing another expert’s perspective may help them feel less alone in the experience.
- Celebrate Your Pet’s Life
Part of the grieving process is recognizing the role your pet played in your family. Be sure to explain that your sadness comes from love and you’re still allowed to celebrate this feeling.
After they spend some time processing the news, let them know that you can honor their life in a variety of ways. Also reiterate that there is no timeframe for loss. Specify that they will feel better with time, but that the pet will always play a special role in their memories.
Here are a few ideas for honoring your pet’s life with your child:
Hold a Memorial
Ritual can be an important part of the healing process for people of all ages. Plan a small memorial in your backyard or at the pet’s favorite park. Purchase a special item or memorial stone for the event so that they have a visual to relate to.
Plant Flowers in Their Honor
Life-affirming actions can help break through the initial helplessness of learning about death. Suggest planting a tree, flowers, or seeds with your child. It may be a good idea to speak or think about the love they had for their animal every time they pass by the growing plant.
Walk Along Your Route
Losing a pet also means losing daily rituals. If you lost a family dog, consider memorializing their lives by mindfully walking along your route together. This may be too difficult just after your dog’s passing, but it will eventually remind your child that life continues in similar ways. You can honor their memory by enjoying the same route they did.
Make a Temporary Shrine
There are likely items throughout your home that belonged to or remind you of your pet such as a scratch post, dog treats, or fishbowl. Clearing away all of these items too soon may be jarring for a child. Choose a space in your home to arrange these items to honor their memory. Choose a time in the near future to put these away when you’re ready.
Frame and Hang a Photo
Consider displaying your favorite images of your pet somewhere special in your home. Encourage your child to help you pick out the photo and frame so that they’re part of the ritual.
Draw or Paint a Picture
It can be hard to find the words to express your feelings, especially for younger kids. During the grieving process, ask your child if they’d like to draw a picture with you in honor of the lost pet. It doesn’t need to be of the pet itself, just anything that comes to mind to help them process their emotions.
- Look for Signs That Your Child is Struggling
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry expresses that short-term responses to grief are normal in children. It will likely take them some time to truly accept their pet isn’t coming back, especially if they’re under the age of five. They may have frequent mood swings or lash out, such as with temper tantrums. They may even act like the pet is their imaginary friend.
More serious issues could persist past a couple of weeks, however. Be aware of signs that they need more support to get through this tough time.
These may include:
- Loss of appetite, disrupted sleep habits, or little interest in daily activities
- Long periods of talking to or imagining the pet is near (this is normal at first)
- Withdrawing from friends
- Unexpected anger or crying weeks after the pet’s passing
- Disinterest in school
- Prolonged maturity regression
If you sense that your child is struggling, it could be helpful to speak with a professional counselor. Be sure to check in with your child’s school or daycare during this time. Signs of long-term grief can be unclear, manifesting at different times of the day.
As a team, you can provide a support system during this difficult process.t important thing is that you give yourself and your beloved pet’s family time to grieve for your pet.