It’s So Hard Losing a Pet: Tips on What to Say to Kids
Pets are loving members of our families. The meaning and connection pets have in our lives, and in the lives of our children, is very powerful.
When kids fall in love with their pets, their expression of their love is shown through their playfulness, cuddling, training, teaching them tricks, giving treats-even building a “house” for them or inviting them into their fort. Feeding, walking, cleaning cages and of course, visits to the vet are the responsibility-often accompanied by kids- of parents.
Pets show their love and attachment by following their family around and being in the same room, on the sofa, by their chair at the kitchen table, in their beds.
A child can turn to their pet and share feelings and frustrations, “Mommy won’t let me go outside!” Pets have a way of being there and are always ready to receive love and attention.
While the bond between a child and her pet is strong, sometimes a child’s feelings don’t fully show up until their pet becomes ill or when their pet dies.
The death of a pet is a common experience for children – fish, hamsters, lizards, birds, gerbils, dogs and cats. And, knowing what to say to your child can be really challenging. It’s natural and okay to feel uncomfortable talking about death.
Truthful and basic information is often a helpful place to start. Try to modify your answers and discussions to the level you think your children will understand. It may begin with heartbreaking words, “We have sad news today. Coco died.” When your explanations come from a heartfelt, comforting place, what you decide to tell your children is okay. You can include your religious beliefs and/or spiritual and philosophical beliefs in what you tell your child: “Coco is in heaven/doggie heaven;” “We will never forget her.” “She was too sick to keep living;” ” I’m glad you said good-bye to her;” “We won’t see her again, but we will always love Coco because love never dies.”
You will also communicate a lot to your children without words; children feel the emptiness in their home after their pet dies.
Two and 3-year-olds are too young for any in-depth discussion, so it’s best to keep answers and explanations simple. “We are sad because Apollo died today.” A young child will notice and feel their missing pet, but will likely respond more to how your sadness shows up. If you are too upset to give your usual attention to your child, he will feel that. Try to manage your feelings and keep your routine – for yourself and your child.
Four and 5-year-olds understand more about death and may have a lot of questions that can be challenging to answer. When asked, “Where’s Bella?” you may need to remind your child, “Bella died, so she’s not here anymore.” Young children don’t understand the permanence of death, so they may continue to wonder and ask until they adjust, “Where’s Bella?” “When will we see her again?” Young children learn through repetition-even though that can be painful. “Bella died, so she won’t live in our house anymore.”
Six and 7-year-olds will be helped by the same explanations as younger children, along with writing a story about their pet, making a scrapbook of pictures, telling funny stories, creating a memory box.
Expect questions from 6 and 7-year-olds that are also hard to answer. “Why couldn’t the doctor make him better?” “Where did she go?” Depending on what happened to your pet, answers will vary: “Dogs and cats get older faster than people, so 14 years is a long time for them to live.” “Moby died peacefully.” “I’m glad we could say goodbye to him.” “We took really good care of Fluffy. That’s how long hamsters live.”
Eight and 9-year-olds will naturally have questions, but they will also have ways to comfort themselves-talking to a friend, their teacher or another relative. You might also help your child heal by creating a memorial, planting flowers, a bush or a tree in memory and honor of the family pet. They may share funny stories – probably a lot of cute stories.
A 10-year-old can begin to understand, “putting a dog to sleep.” “When the doctor ‘put Sophie to sleep’ it means she helped her die without being in pain and we did that so that she wouldn’t be too sick.” “Veterinarians are specially trained to know when a dog or cat is too sick to keep living.” “Dogs and cats can’t talk so we have to watch their behavior and how they act to know when they are sick.”
If you bury your pet, your child may want to be part of the burial. Tell your child that burying pets is how people honor their pets when they die. Have flowers to plant next to the grave and share a loving story about your pet. Say how much she loved your family and that you will always love her and won’t forget her.
Sing a song, say a prayer and share what you will miss about your pet. Show gratitude, “We are so happy you were part of our lives.”
If you think you can explain that you are having your pet cremated, make sure you believe your child can handle the explanation. Be mindful of how you explain and talk about this. “Lucy went to a crematory. People who cremate pets understand how much their families love them. We won’t see her again because they take special care to put her remains in an urn.” Also, think carefully about whether you want to have the urn in your home, especially if you think it would be upsetting and not understood by your kids.
Truthfully, it is okay to talk about getting another pet, especially if your child brings it up. That wish, question and discussion may come up soon after your pet dies. It’s a way for kids to move their healing forward and put their painful feelings in a more positive and hopeful place. While you may not be ready to get another pet, you can still let your kids talk about it. You can even ask them some engaging questions, “What kind of pet would you want?” “Would it be big or little?”
And, you can still say, “It’s good to talk about getting a new dog/cat/hamster, so we will know what to get when we are ready.”
“Loss takes time to understand.” - Fred Rogers