Published March 29 2009
Talking to your child when a pet diesThe loss of a pet can be especially hard on children, who often view the pet as a beloved family member. A pet’s passing also is often a child’s first exposure to death, so it’s important he or she learns how to cope with it – and the other losses that will follow in life – in a healthy way.
Breaking the news
- Try to break the news in a quiet place where the child can’t be distracted.
- Avoid trying to “ease the child’s pain” with a lie. Saying that “Butch ran away” won’t lessen the sadness of losing a pet, and if the truth comes out, your child may be angry that you lied.
- As with any difficult issue, keep in mind your child’s age, maturity level and level of sensitivity to help determine the type of explanation you’ll use for what’s going to happen. If it seems appropriate, it’s OK to use words like “death” and “dying” or to say something like, “The veterinarian will give our pet a shot that first puts it to sleep and then stops the heart from beating.”
- If euthanization is necessary, always avoid saying the pet has been “put to sleep.” Children tend to interpret language very literally, so such a phrase could conjure up scary misunderstandings about sleep or anesthesia. If it matches your own faith system, you might say something like, “Shadow is in heaven now.”
- If an animal has to be euthanized, it’s important your child understand that the veterinarians did everything they could to save the pet, this is the kindest way to take the pet’s suffering away, and the pet will die peacefully without feeling hurt or scared.
- If a pet’s death is more sudden, calmly explain what happened. Be brief, letting the child’s questions guide how much information you provide.
- Help kids understand that it’s normal to feel a variety of emotions besides sadness after the death of a pet, and it’s OK to talk about them when they are ready.
- As their role models, don’t feel compelled to hide your own sadness about losing a pet. Showing how you feel and talking about it sets a healthy example for your children. Share stories about the pets you had when you were young and how difficult it was to say goodbye.
- Help kids find a special way to remember a pet, either through a special scrapbook or a special family night in which you share your favorite stories about Tiger or Bear.
Good resources on losing pets:
- “A Gift From Rex: Guiding Children Through Life and Loss,” by Dr. Jim Kramer
- “Cat Heaven,” and “Dog Heaven,” by Cynthia Rylant
- “When a Pet Dies,” by Fred Rogers.
Sources: kidshealth.org; Disney Channel