- Last updated on January 24, 2012
Explaining Pet Loss to Children
When a family loses a pet it feels as though they’ve lost a member of their family. For Children, this is often the first time they’ve experienced loss. When the pet death happens or is about to happen, it is important to have an open and honest conversation with the child. Vaguely explaining the death or not at all, often leaves children feeling confused, stressed and afraid. Using euphemisms such as "passed away" or "went to sleep" to describe death may cause fear around going to sleep at night.
What to Say
Children aren't yet developmentally ready to understand death in the same way adults can. The best thing to do is be brief. A wonderful thing to tell them is that the pet’s body has died and is in the grave, so the physical part of the relationship is lost. However, the spiritual part, the memories, and the love will be alive forever.
The beliefs and reactions of the child will differ depending on their age.
Children Ages 3-5 Reaction to Pet Loss
Children at this age view death as temporary and reversible. They believe you can heal them by taking them to the veterinarian. They also believe that they caused the pet’s death by wishing for another puppy or not appreciating the one they already had.
Children Ages 6-8 Reaction to Pet Loss
At this age, children understand that the death of their pet cannot be reversed, but they believe that it only happens to others and not to them. The concept of death is better understood, but they may be in denial that it is happening to them.
Children 9-11 Reaction to Pet Loss
Children from ages 9 through 11 full comprehend that death is inevitable for everyone, including themselves. They do, however, still feel responsible. They believe the life of their pet may have been extended if they played with them more or fed them more often.
There are children’s books available on this sensitive topic that can help a child to better understand:
All God's Creatures Go To Heaven , by Amy Nolfo-Wheeler (Noël Studio, Inc., 1996)
Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping , by Marty Tousley (Our Pals Publishing, 1997)
It Must Hurt a Lot: A Child's Book About Death , by Doris Sanford (Multnomah Press, 1986
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children , by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen (Bantam Books, 1983)
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages , by Leo Buscaglia (Slack, 1982)
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney , by Judith Viorst (Macmillan, 1971)
When a Pet Dies , by Fred Rogers (Putnam, 1988)
Remember to be honest, brief, and spare any details that may traumatize them. Make it sound as beautiful and peaceful as possible.