Helping Your Child Through the Loss of Their Pet

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I grew up with tons of animals. Dogs, cats, we had a horse, tortoises, birds. You name it, we had it. One of the benefits of living on a big ranch in the middle of nowhere! I have so many memories of running outside with the dogs and helping mama kitties whelp their litters. But interspersed in all those happy memories are devastating memories of loss. I believe wholeheartedly that kids should grow up with pets, but losing a pet is one of the hardest things a kid can experience. But pet loss is a part of life when you have fur babies in the family. As parents, it’s our job to help our kiddos through this difficult transition. Here are some ways to support your little ones through the loss of their best fur (or feathered or scaly) buddies.

For a lot of kids, pet loss is their first experience with the death of a loved one.

My own kids recently experienced the loss of our beloved cat. He was old, about 12, and his health declined very rapidly. My kids have never experienced death firsthand, but understand that sometimes we lose those we love. My dad, their grandfather, passed away before either of them were born, but we speak of him often and I’ve been open about his death. But with our cat, they were witnessing it themselves. I explained what was happening, and told them we may have to take him to the vet so they could help him pass. But he ended up going on his own at home, surrounded by his humans and in his favorite spot. The girls petted him as he faded away, and they each painted a few rocks to decorate his resting spot in our backyard.

It definitely helped that I talked to them about it throughout the whole process. If your pet is elderly or has a lingering illness, try talking to your kids before they die to prepare them.

It can be so much harder when it comes as surprise, so don’t try to shield your kids from what is happening. Talk to them about death and dying in ways that they can process (age-appropriately for their development and maturity). If you have to have your pet euthanized, explain that the vet will be giving them medicine that will help them rest and make their heart stop beating. Emphasize that they will feel no pain. It may also help to assure your kids that this is a humane way to end the pain your pet may be experiencing. If your kids are older, you may consider allowing them to be present when their pet is euthanized, so they can comfort them while they go.

One caveat if you have to euthanize your pet: be careful using the phrasing “put them to sleep” or “got put to sleep”. We all know how literal kids can be, and this may cause them to develop scary misconceptions about sleep, anesthesia, or surgery.

If the death of your pet was sudden and unexpected, be honest and answer their questions.

Sometimes pet loss is unexpected, which can be difficult to explain to kids. Make sure you’re as honest with them as possible, and answer their questions truthfully. You don’t need to do into a lot of detail about how your pet died. However, explaining an illness or accident age-appropriately is a good idea.

No matter how your pet dies, it’s important to be honest with your kids and tell them the truth.

Sadly, there is no farm that elderly or sick pets go to live out their days. I know we want to shield our kids from pain as much as possible. But we’re doing them a disservice by not being honest about death and pet loss. Also, telling them their pet went on a trip or ran away won’t negate the pain of losing them. In fact, it can prolong it, as the child will likely keep missing them and wondering when they’ll return.

How you explain what happens to a pet after it dies is really up to you and your own belief system. I told my girls that bodies die, but our cat’s soul will live forever in their hearts and memories. And it’s OK to tell them you don’t know what happens! Do any of us really know? We don’t have all the answers. It can help your kids process pet loss when you’re honest about the mystery of what happens after.

Pet loss will bring a range of emotions to the surface in your kiddos. Support them and help them talk through their feelings.

Tell them it’s OK to be sad, even for a long time. Don’t try to rush them through the grieving process. If you’ve ever grieved the loss of a loved one, you know it comes in waves. Your child may be sad, or angry, or feel guilty that they couldn’t make their pet better. Just let them know all of their emotions are valid, and that if they want to talk about them, you’re there.

Also, don’t try to hide your own sadness over the loss of your pet. When our cat died, I was devastated. I’d had him for nearly 12 years, longer than I’ve been a mother. Losing him was like losing a little part of myself. I cried with my girls, and I’ve cried many times since he died. They know it’s OK to feel what they’re feeling, since they see me processing our pet loss everyday, too.

Help them move on, when they’re ready and at their own pace.

At some point, we have to pick up our pieces and continue on. But that doesn’t mean we have to forget about our pets, or never speak of them again. Helping your kids create a small memorial in their pet’s honor as a remembrance might help. And as always, let them know that they can still talk about their pet, and that just because they’re gone doesn’t mean they’re forgotten. Pets are members of our family, and if this is your child’s first experience with any kind of loss, their grieving process may be long. That’s OK! There is no rush or time table for grieving, and your kids may need a lot of time to get over their pet loss. When the time is right, start talking to them about perhaps welcoming a new pet to the family. But make sure to assure them that it won’t replace their beloved buddy. It would just be a new family member to love, just as much as they loved the pet they lost.

Life happens, and pet loss is a part of that. If you’re navigating this with your kids right now, I’m sending you my love. It’s not easy! But man, the joy they bring to our lives for the short time we have them is really worth it, you know?

(Image: iStock / ehaurylik)