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Helping Children Cope With Pet Loss

Death and dying are two of the hardest facts of life to explain to children. It is natural to want to shield children from the pain of loss, however we cannot protect them from death and grief and they respond best to honesty and compassion. This is often their first experience with death, and is an opportunity to help them learn how to grieve in a healthy, productive, and healing way. How we handle this event can have a far-reaching impact on our children’s understanding of death and dying.
When a child experiences the death of a beloved pet, he or she may experience emotional reactions that can be painful and frightening. Actions that you can take to help children experience those reactions as healthy events include:

  • Understanding
  • Grieving
  • Memorializing

Here are several ways to help your child achieve these tasks:

First, find a quiet place where you can talk without interruption.

Tell the child simply that their pet has died and what caused the death. If necessary, explain what the word “dead” means. Avoid overloading your children with details.

Answer all questions truthfully in words they can understand.

Inconsistent or incomplete answers may leave the child more unsettled than the truth itself.

Encourage expression of feelings.

Children will model their parents’ behaviors. Try drawing, writing, and talking together about the pet.

Avoid euphemisms.

Avoid terms like “gone away”, “put to sleep”, “passed on”, and “lost”. A child could misunderstand the common phrase “put to sleep”, indicating the adult’s denial of death, and develop a terror of bedtime. Suggesting to a child that “God has taken” the pet may create conflict in the child, who could become angry at the higher power for cruelty toward a pet and the child. Instead, simple and accurate terms such as “dead” and “stopped breathing”, establishes that the body is no longer alive biologically.

Share your beliefs, hopes, and faiths about the soul or spirit of pets.

Depending on your own personal beliefs, you may say “The spirit of our special pet is with God in Heaven”, “the spirit is the warm feeling of love in our hearts”, or “the spirit is in nature”.

A funeral, memorial service,

burial, or placement of ashes encourages healthy closure to the loss process.

Encourage children to express their grief by drawing pictures of their pet,

and sharing what the pictures mean to them. Always listen to what they have to say, and praise them for their thoughts. If a child would like the picture put in his/her room, then honor that wish. It could keep the pet closer to the child at bedtime until the grief has subsided.

Some people have a ritual of lighting candles on anniversaries,

and reminiscing about their life with their pets. This offers them a special sense of comfort and respect. Let the children participate in this.

It is good to invite friends to talk about their own positive experiences regarding the death of a beloved pet.

It is usually a bittersweet time of laughing and crying with one another, but that is part of the healing process. It is good for children to learn about the joys that pets bring into other people’s lives. An exchange of memories helps to broaden their personal perspective of the human/animal bond, and their role in this. 

A child’s ability to understand what death means depends on his/her level of emotional and cognitive development. The general guideline of how children of various ages perceive death and dying is as follows:

Two- and Three-Year-Olds:

Children this age typically have no understanding of death. They often consider it a form of sleep. They should be told that their pet has died and will not return. Common reactions to think include temporary loss of speech and generalized distress. The child should be reassured that the pet’s failure to return is unrelated to anything the child may have said or done.

Four-, Five-, and Six-Year-Olds:

Children in this age range typically have some understanding of death but in a way that related to a continued existence. The pet may be considered to be living underground while continuing to eat, breath, and play. Alternatively, it may be considered to be asleep. A return to life may be expected if the child views death as temporary. These children often feel that any anger they may have had toward the pet may be responsible for its death. This view should be refuted because they may also translate this belief to death of family members in the past. Some children also see death as contagious and begin to fear that their own death (or the death of others) is imminent. They should be reassured that their death is not likely. Manifestations of grief often take the form of disturbances in bladder and bowel control, eating, and sleeping. This is best managed by parent-child discussions that allow the child to express feelings and concerns. Several brief discussions are generally more productive than one or two prolonged sessions.

Seven-, Eight-, and Nine-Year-Olds:

The irreversibility of death becomes real to these children. They usually do not personalize death, thinking it cannot happen to them. However, some children may develop concerns about the death of their parents. They may become very curious about death and its implications. Parents should be ready to respond frankly and honestly to questions that may arise. Several manifestations of grief may occur in these children, including development of school problems, learning problems, antisocial behavior, hypochondriacally concerns, or aggression. Additionally, withdrawal, over-attentiveness, or clinging behavior may be seen. Based on grief reactions of parents or siblings, it is likely that these symptoms may not occur immediately but several weeks or months later.


Adolescents generally understand that all living things will eventually die, and that death is total. They may go through the normal stages of grief that grownups do: denial, bargaining, anger, guilt, depression, and acceptance. Although this age group often reacts similarly to adults, many adolescents exhibit various forms of denial. This usually takes the form of lack of emotional display. Consequently, these young people may be experiencing sincere grief without any outward emotional manifestations.




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