How to talk to children about the death of a pet?

5 min read

The death of a pet is a painful experience for children; they lose a friend, a confidant, a family member. How do you break the news to them? How can you support them in their grieving process? Here are some tips to help them overcome this loss.

Truthful communication using simple words

It's important to be honest with your child. Choose simple words. You don't need to provide excessive details, but use precise words to answer their questions. Tell them that their pet has died, they won't see them again, they can't play, cuddle, or talk to them anymore. It's crucial not to lie or deny the reality of the situation because your child will soon discover the truth. They might resent you later on.

Explain the real reasons for the death according to the circumstances:

- Natural death: Explain to your child that the animal was old and its heart stopped. You can talk about the cycle of life, explaining that death is a natural process. You could also mention that pets live shorter lives than humans. Reassure them by highlighting the good times shared and that their friend lived a beautiful life.
- Illness: Explain that the pet was sick and isn't suffering anymore, it's a relief.
- Accident: Say that the pet had an accident, it didn't suffer long, it's an unfortunate event that sometimes happens. Don't make your child feel responsible for the accident, even if they forgot something.

Avoid using phrases like "falling asleep," "going away," or "living in heaven" to talk about your pet's death. For instance, telling your child their dog "fell asleep" might make them afraid to go to bed, fearing their own death. Similarly, saying their cat "went away" on a long journey or "lives in heaven" might make your child wait for their return.

Respecting your child's emotions

Don't try to downplay or diminish the significance of this loss for your child. Encourage them to express their emotions and ask questions. To help them, share your own emotions about the pet's death. Acknowledge your child's grief, regardless of the type of animal. It's not helpful to say things like, "It was just a goldfish." If your child feels you underestimate the intensity of their loss, it will only make it harder to cope.

Listen to your child and answer their questions honestly. If you don't have an answer to one of their questions, tell them so. Books about the death of a pet are available and could be helpful. Your library may offer them. Look in the children's section.

Assure your child that they are not responsible for the pet's death. Also, tell them that you love them, you're there for them, you understand their sadness. Show them that life goes on, there are still positive things to experience, without forgetting their pet.

Arranging a farewell ceremony

Organizing a small farewell ceremony for your pet can be comforting for your child. It can be an opportunity for everyone to share memories related to the deceased animal. This might help your child feel better.

Invite your child to place a picture of the pet in their room or draw it. This is a way to pay tribute, evoke memories, and maintain a connection with the deceased animal.

You can also bury your pet in your garden or in a pet cemetery if available. Alternatively, you can entrust your pet to a vet or a specialized company for cremation. You can ask to receive your pet's ashes in an urn, which you can keep or scatter in a place that feels appropriate to you.

Check the legislation regarding this as permissions vary between countries.

Waiting before adopting a new pet

Don't try to distract your child by offering leisure activities during the intense phase of their mourning. It's hard to accept the loss of a beloved animal. Don't try to make them forget the deceased pet by quickly getting a new one. Your child needs to grieve before forming an attachment to another animal. Wait until your child asks or discuss it with them to see if they feel ready to engage with another animal again.

The duration of grieving varies among children, their age, personality, and their relationship with the animal. Some children will recover quickly, others will need more time. Be patient, understanding, and most importantly, listen. If you notice that your child is struggling to overcome their sadness, withdrawing, losing their appetite, experiencing sleep disturbances, or having difficulties at school, don't hesitate to consult a healthcare professional, like a child psychologist, who can help the family through this difficult time.