For many children, pets are valued members of the family. They might even be best friends. So when a pet dies, the loss can be especially devastating for a child. It’s not uncommon for the loss of a pet to be their first experience with death, so comprehending the end of a life can be a difficult concept.
Parents may want to shelter their kids from the heartbreak of death by telling them that “Fluffy ran away,” but the fib probably won’t lessen their sadness. But the experience, however sad, can be an opportunity for a child to learn about life and death. It’s a chance to prepare them to cope with other losses in life. Child psychologists say that by lying, you're missing an opportunity to help kids learn about death.
Encouraging creative expression and facilitating rituals - like a backyard burial, or planting a tree in a pet’s honour - allows an outlet for emotions. It can also help the grieving process. But this will depend on your child’s personality, stage of development and past experiences of loss.
Every child’s understanding of death and response to grief is different, but their developmental stage will also have a large impact. When talking to children about death, it’s important to use simple but concrete and clear language. Answer their questions honestly and tell them the facts in simple terms appropriate to their age.
The younger the child, the more general terms you should use to explain that the animal has died. But be mindful that kids often have magical thinking at early stages of development. They may think death is temporary and reversible, so to say that “Fluffy has gone to sleep” can be confusing. It leaves the child thinking their pet may wake up or come back.
Toddlers and preschool-aged children do not comprehend the concept of “forever”. Sometimes this extends to early childhood, too. Often, younger children repeatedly ask where their deceased pet is, or when they are coming back. It’s also common for younger children to ask confronting questions about the death process, like “What happens when you die?” Again, try to respond as honestly as possible in a way that’s appropriate to their age.
Younger kids will often express their grief feelings through play instead of words. So, use simple terms and keep your explanation brief. You might say: “Fluffy has died because she was very sick. We will miss her, but we can do things to help us feel better like putting up photos of her, or drawing pictures.”
Older children are generally more inquisitive and will probably want more information, so be prepared to share your own beliefs about life and death. What happens after death is unknown, so it’s also OK to say you don’t know. Remember to be honest with your child, but also mindful of their level of development.
Children need time and a safe space to process information and express how they are feeling. Be prepared for repeated questions, but keep your answers consistent to avoid confusion. At any stage of development, it’s important to let your child know that feeling sad is a natural response to death. And while the pain will go away, the happy memories will always be there.
Children need to feel safe and comfortable to express how they feel. So, involving the child in selecting pictures to frame, or making a scrapbook filled with memories, can help them to process their grief.
A child’s grief is often mirrored by how adults grieve, so parents have an opportunity to demonstrate healthy grieving. You can do this by talking about an experience of losing a beloved pet of your own, and sharing how it felt to you and those around you. Open up about the pets you had when you were younger and how hard it was for you to say goodbye.
Kids aged seven and up tend to process emotions more intensely, so they can become anxious about death. Older children could become fearful that someone else they love will soon die. If a child shows signs of regression, they may also need more cuddles and reassurance.
Children find it hard to express their feelings so they might complain of stomach pain, headaches, or other physical discomforts. They could even have nightmares or experience behavioural changes.
Kids often feel a variety of emotions after the death of a pet, just as adults do when they experience grief. So reassure them that what they are feeling is natural. Understand that they may not want to talk about how they’re feeling at first, but support them to open up when they are ready.
It’s also OK to share your own grief and cry when you feel sad. The openness helps kids to know they are not alone in feeling sad.
Once the shock of the loss fades, it’s important to help your child move through their grief. Involving them in a ceremony or ritual in honour of your pet is a helpful way to do this. It could simply be helping them to write down or draw some memories of fun times your family had with your pet, share stories of their funny moments, or express thoughts about what the pet meant to each family member. Depending on your child’s age and level of development, you might also include them in the burial of the pet’s body.
When the time is right, you might even consider welcoming another animal companion into your family.
It’s important to remember that children grieve differently from adults. For some kids, the loss of a pet that offered love and companionship can be harder felt than the loss of a relative.
Children tend to step in and out of their grief. One moment they could be sobbing, then a few minutes later they’re playing happily. But for most adults, grief comes in waves too. Parents shouldn’t dismiss their child’s grief, but instead support them and take the opportunity to learn about the fluidity of grief from them.
Don’t wait until the very end. It’s important to consider your pet’s end-of-life journey early, so that you, your family and your pet are all supported through the process.
When the time comes, we’re here for you. Goodbye Good Boy provides a range of end-of-life services to make the difficult process of saying goodbye a little easier. We offer quality of life assessments from qualified vets, specialist grief counselling, at home euthanasia from dedicated end of life veterinarians, as well as cremation services and memorial options to help remember your pet for their unique character.
We are with you at every step of the journey.
To find out more, visit the Goodbye Good Boy website here, or chat with our team of passionate pet lovers on 1800 953 619.