Talking with children about the death of pets

Six tips to help children understand and cope with the loss of their pet.

Help your child cope with the loss of a pet with these helpful tips. | MSU Extension
Help your child cope with the loss of a pet with these helpful tips. | MSU Extension

Pets bring much joy and love to young children. From the carnival goldfish to the family dog, children learn important lessons about caregiving and responsibility from having pets at home. However, the day sadly comes when those beloved pets pass away. As tempting as it can be to replace that hamster with an identical one, the loss of pets present parents with another important learning opportunity for young children. Michigan State University Extension offers the following tips when talking with young children about the loss of pets.

  1. Choose the right time to talk. Avoid addressing the tough topic of the death of their pet right before school or bedtime. It might not seem tragic to you that their fish died, but to a child who does not understand the concept of death, it can be very scary and overwhelming. Do not inform them their pet has died, or will be dying soon, just as they are leaving to go to school or child care or when they are laying down for bed at night. Choose a time when you can have a focused conversation with your child and will be available to answer questions as they come up.
  2. Be clear and concise. When talking with children about death, it’s important to choose your language carefully. Avoid comparisons of death to sleeping, which can be very scary to young children. If their kitty cat fell asleep and never woke up, could that happen to them or their mom or sister too? Think through what you will say ahead of time and anticipate their questions. An example might be: “I’m sad to tell you that our cat died. Her heart stopped beating and her lungs stopped breathing. Her body does not work anymore.” Try to answer their questions honestly, but without adding too much extra information.
  3. Be honest. Understandably, some parents might want to switch out the goldfish for a new one, or try to seek out an identical pet bird. Instead, it’s typically best to tackle this tough subject. Children will lose family members and friends in their life and learning about death through the loss of a fish is a gentler and easier way to introduce the concepts of death than when a person passes away.
  4. Read a book. There are several good children’s books that address concepts of death for young children. Some include a religious focus and others do not; take time to pre-read the book before sharing it with your child to be sure you are comfortable with the content. The book Goodbye Mousie by Robie H. Harris tells the story of a young boy who is very sad to discover one morning that his pet mouse has died in the night. At first, he is very mad that Mousie died but then he is able to talk about Mousie and decorate a special box to bury Mousie in so he begins to feel better about the loss of his special pet. 
  5. Honor children’s feelings. While you might have a good understanding that hamsters only live for a few years or that the goldfish from the fair wasn’t likely to live long anyway, these first experiences with death can be very difficult for young children. Respect that your child is grieving. Show empathy in your language and actions. A gentle hug, saying “I’m sad that the fish died too,” and helping your child remember their pet is very important. Take time to address the feeling of loss and expect that a child might experience some anxiety about separation, sleeping or the health and wellness of other pets and family members.
  6. Memorialize their pet. Encourage children to express their feelings through drawing or writing memories. Listen to what they have to share about their drawings. Consider making a scrapbook of pictures and memorabilia. Let children participate in burying their pet or scattering ashes if they are cremated. Consider planting a special tree or plant in memory of their pet.

Children naturally become very attached to their pets and the loss of their pets can be very difficult. As children mature, their response to the loss of a pet will vary. The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement offers a guide to children’s understanding of loss at varying ages and developmental stages. The loss of a pet can be a significant source of grief in a family. Children will need support from their parents and caregivers to understand and cope with the loss. It is important to children to have their family’s support through this difficult time. 

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