Knowing how to talk to your child about a pet dying can be challenging. My family said goodbye to two beloved elderly dogs in recent years. My young daughters never knew life without these canine companions until their deaths.
I felt like I already knew grief and loss well. My mother died when I was pregnant with my youngest daughter, and my grandfather died a few years later. I even wrote picture books for preschoolers who’ve lost a grandparent.
But walking a child through the loss of a pet feels different.
How to Talk to Your Child about a Pet Dying
Often, the loss of a pet is a child’s first significant experience with death. It is a good idea to prepare your children for the inevitability of a pet’s death before the time comes, if possible.
Be calm, supportive, and direct with your kids when a pet’s death occurs. Allow your child to ask questions and answer them honestly, only using enough detail for their age level. Avoid using euphemisms that may confuse them. (Keep in mind that children begin to understand the finality of death around age four.)
My miniature schnauzer died when I was an adolescent. She was hit by a car in front of our house. It destroyed me emotionally because it meant that my worst fear came true. My mother told me to stop crying a few days later. I know now that she did this because my negative emotions made my grandmother uncomfortable. But holding in those feelings only led to depression and increased my anxiety.
Validate your child’s emotions.
It is vitally important to validate your child’s initial reactions to their loss. Negative emotions like sadness, anger and fear are normal, healthy responses to losing someone or something you love. Let your children see your sadness, as well. Reassure them that grief is okay and necessary—it is a natural consequence of our love.
Every child will process through the stages of grief differently. My youngest daughter did most of her crying before the actual loss occurred when we explained that it was time to say goodbye to our first dog. My oldest daughter was stoic until the night following our first dog’s euthanasia. I ended up lying with her as she cried herself to sleep.
The goal in grief is to eventually move away from our feelings of sadness, anger, and fear and towards feelings of gratitude, peace, and acceptance. Unfortunately, there is no standard timeline for that process. And trying to rush yourself or your child through the grieving process will surely backfire.
An older child’s worst fear in grief is often that their beloved pet will be forgotten. Don’t rush to replace their pet with a new one without their input.
Read books to your kids about a pet dying.
Reading picture books for kids about losing a pet can help you start conversations with younger children. My top recommendations for children’s books about a pet dying are The Invisible Leash from Patrice Karst, The Rainbow Bridge…A Dog’s Story by Judith Kristen, I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm, and The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr.
I particularly like The Invisible Leash because it reminds children that their love for their pet is an unbreakable bond. The book reassures kids that death cannot break that connection. The simplicity and bright colors of The Goodbye Book work best for the youngest readers.
Help your child honor their pet.
There are many activities you can do with your child to honor the memory of their beloved pet.
Ask them to draw a picture of or write a poem about their pet. Help them plant a tree or rose bush in memory of their pet. Donate their pet’s toys and bed to an animal shelter together. (An older child may even want to volunteer at an animal shelter, eventually.) Frame their pet’s collar and a special photo of their pet in a shadow box. Find a stuffed animal (or order a custom one) that looks like their pet. You could even purchase a statue that looks like their pet for your backyard. The important thing is that you consider your child’s input in how you honor their pet.
Remind your child that love never ends.
My friend Amanda Smith, DVM, who walked us through the loss of both of our dogs, said this: “I like to tell kids that even though God only gives our pets to us for a short period of time, we have to remind ourselves how lucky we were to get to give them a happy life.”
Over time, you can help your children focus on good memories of their pet. Share your happy memories or funny stories about the pet with your child. Help your child find gratitude for the happy times they spent together and the love they shared.
And remind them that that love never ends.
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