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10 Tips for Explaining Pet Death to Children

Helping Children of Every Age Understand Death

By Mary Kearl. January 02, 2014 | See Comments

A Child And Veterinarian With A Cat

When a pet passes away, it can be a difficult time for everyone in the family, especially children. Here are some ways you can explain your pet's death to your child, based on their age.

As animal lovers, there’s almost nothing worse than having to face the loss of our dear pets. As parents to animal lovers, helping our children face the loss of their dear pets can be harder still. What can you do to cope as a family and begin the grieving process together? Here are some strategies.

1. Consider your child’s age and ability to process the idea of death.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, kids ages 3 to 5 think of death as a stage—fleeting, something that can be undone; from ages 6 to 8, the gravity of death is a more real and understandable concept, but it’s not until a child is about 9 that she or he typically realizes the finality of dying. As such, it’s important to state the facts to younger ones: that the family pet won’t eat, play, or wake from what appears to be sleep, but is not, ever again. You may have to go over this new information multiple times. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) advises that toddlers need short, straight-forward explanations.

2. If your pet is aging, explain the concept gradually

Help your children adjust to your senior pet’s changing health. Your daughter or son may take comfort in being able to say goodbye. If your family pet needs to be euthanized, it’s important to explain that this is the best option, that there is nothing else that can be done, and that your pet has been in pain and now she or he will be able to die without hurting.

3. Deliver the news in a comforting place

Be soothing and tell your kids in a place they feel safe and at home in, ideally free from distractions.

4. Avoid confusing euphemisms

Phrases like “rest in peace” and “eternal rest” may cause kids to confuse sleep and death, and even lead to a fear of going to bed, explains the NIH.

5. Ask your children if they would like to see the body

Seeing what death looks like may actually help provide closure.

6. Know what emotional reactions to expect

Your child may exhibit emptiness, guilt—a feeling of responsibility, anger at the loss, jealousy of those who have healthy pets at home, regression to earlier habits like thumb sucking or bed wetting, and even depression.

7. Offer activities that you can do together to help cope, process the loss, and honor your pet

Some suggestions the ASPCA recommends include planning a special memorial service, planting something in your pet’s memory, gathering pictures of the beloved animal, sharing favorite memories together, and having the kids draw pictures of, or write letters to, their pets.

8. Show your grief, too

This will help your kids know that feeling sad, or different than normal, is OK.

9. Get support

The ASPCA offers a pet loss hotline (877-GRIEF-10) where you can get advice on helping children cope with the death of a beloved animal. Additionally, the ASPCA has a list of recommended reading for kids on pet loss.

10. Wait before you bring a new pet into the home

Though your kids may miss having a cat, dog, or other animal in the home, the ASPCA advises waiting at least a month before seeking out a new pet.

More on Pet Health

The Annual Vet Visit Cost: What to Expect
The Importance of Taking Your Cat to the Vet
How to Find the Right Vet

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