How to Explain the Death of a Pet to a Child
In many homes, pets are part of the family. Children are raised alongside their beloved dogs, cats, or other animals. This way, they learn to socialize with them and even share food! Who hasn’t seen a child give a piece of his cookie to their hungry and eager puppy? They’re like children’s first friends. That’s why, faced with their loss, it’s very hard to explain the death of a pet. Let’s see how to do it in the best possible way.
Children and pets
For families or children who have pets, they’re a part of home life and not just an addition. Pets entertain us with their witticisms and performances, teach us things about ourselves, and accompany us in our daily activities. Children also learn to be responsible by engaging in their care, whether it’s through feeding, hygiene, or walking the pet.
There are also known benefits regarding the reduction of stress and anxiety when spending time with pets. Entertained, happy, and connected to the here and now, children enjoy their company. Therefore, it’s logical and to be expected that they’ll grieve the death of a pet. However, it’s important to talk about it and not deny it. That way, the little ones will be able to connect with their emotions and give that sadness the place and time it deserves in order to feel better later.
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How to explain the death of a pet to a child
Some keys to keep in mind to explain the death of a pet to children are the following:
Explaining death according to the age of the child
It’s not a good idea to hide the information, but to maintain a filter regarding what we say. In some cases, children aren’t ready to understand what’s happening, so it’s advisable to avoid certain unnecessary details. When they’re small, sometimes all we need to tell them is that the pet has gone to heaven or to a place where animals rest.
For example, children are still very literal, so sometimes we make a mistake when we tell them that “the pet is going to sleep for a long time”. This can produce fear at bedtime or can create a false expectation that at some point, the pet will wake up and return. However, for older children and as little ones grow older, another type of information, perhaps more realistic, needs to be specified.
Rituals are important
Rituals serve to make a transition, prepare, and say goodbye. In the case of children, this practice can be writing a letter, drawing a picture, telling stories or memories, or whatever is best for the child.
Give your children space to manage the death of a pet
In some cases, when trying to avoid the pain of the children, adults suggest or start looking for another pet for the family. However, it’s important to understand that this dog or animal was unique and special. Therefore, it’s also important to allow space and time for mourning. At the same time, as a way to lift the children’s spirits, you can think of some extra plans. For example, you can have a sleepover or a movie night. This activity not only allows you to share and go through this bitter moment together but also facilitates the expression of emotions and dialogue.
In those cases in which the pet has an illness or is already old, we can anticipate and prepare children for when that moment arrives. We won’t be able to avoid sadness, but the news of the death of the pet will be less shocking.
Share your emotions and experiences
Sharing your own emotions and experiences with your children is also a way to open the possibility for them to tell how they’re experiencing that moment. That way, they’ll know how you’ve felt in a similar situation and that you can understand them. Letting off steam is always a good way to go through grief.
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Don’t allow the issue of death to become a taboo
As we pointed out above, our explanation about the death of the pet will include more or less information depending on the child’s age. What we must avoid is lying to our little ones about death and making this natural and universal event something to be feared or not to be talked about.
For this reason, adults must also be prepared, as they’ll have to give the news calmly and empathetically and be able to deal with the pain felt by the children. Sometimes, their suffering overwhelms us and we end up needing comfort rather than comforting our little ones. Therefore, it’s also a good idea to identify who’s the best person in the family to share the news.
On the other hand, one way to avoid being secretive about the death is to talk about the pet after a few days and when your family wishes to do so. Sharing a memory, such as laughing about an adventure, is also accepting that the beloved pet is no longer physically present, but is part of our lives and memories.
All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.
- Comité Nacional de Prevención de Lesiones. Consenso: niños y mascotas. Arch Argent Pediatr 2020;118(3):S69-S10
- Videla, M. D., & Ceberio, M. R. (2019). Las mascotas en el sistema familiar. Legitimidad, formación y dinámicas de la familia humano-animal. Revista de Psicología, 18(2), 44-63.