When a Pet Dies: How to Help Your Child through Grief

Worries of childhoodLast week, our cat died. Frodo was a stray tomcat we took in 11 years ago. We weren’t sure about his age, though we’re guessing he lived to be about 14 years old. He didn’t show any signs of illness, and while I knew he was old, I wasn’t fully prepared to get the call that he had gone to sleep and had not woken up.

Although I was very sad at his passing, I was happy that he lived a good, long life with us. I know he slipped away peacefully.

How My Daughter Took the News

I wasn’t prepared for the reaction of my 8-year-old daughter. She was in the car when I received the phone call telling me what had happened, and when I hung up, I told her. After she had expressed sadness, she began asking when we could get another cat. I had to tell her several times that this was something I couldn’t talk about now because I was really sad.

We had been talking for months that sooner or later one of our many animals was going to pass away. I wanted to prepare her. I think I also wanted to prepare myself for her reaction.

When she was two years old, my daughter drew a face on a balloon. When she accidentally let go of it, she sobbed herself to sleep. I expected her reaction to losing a cat would be greater than that. It wasn’t.

A Child’s Grief

Losing a pet is often the first experience of grief a child has. Give them the space and permission to work through it on their own terms, but with your love and support. Talk to them about how it felt when you were a child and lost an animal you loved.When it was time, my daughter created an elaborate funeral procession and burial for Frodo. She took comfort in making sure his grave was decorated with flowers, and she shed a few tears throughout the process. And that was okay.

Just like every adult grieves differently for each death, each child grieves differently for each loss. The way a child mourns a beloved pet at the age of four may change dramatically when he or she reaches the age of ten.

As a parent, you may feel uncomfortable talking about loss. You may get uncomfortable with how your child is behaving. Some kids want to immediately replace the pet, and others refuse to consider it. One child may not cry at all in front of you but will cry silently at night. Another child will talk about their pet endlessly and cry constantly for days.

As a parent, there are things you can do to help your child manage their sadness when their pet dies:

  • Allow them to grieve in their own way, even if it’s not how you grieve. They may want to do an elaborate funeral or they may not want to do anything to remember their pet. Give them the freedom to mourn in a way that feels right for them.
  • Expect delayed grief. Some children, especially younger ones, don’t fully understand what death means. The finality of it can be hard to comprehend and accept. They may seem calm until something triggers a memory.
  • Give yourself space to grieve the loss. It’s absolutely OK to give yourself privacy and time to mourn.
  • Talk about the pet you lost. Talk about the wonderful memories you have. Express your own sadness to your child and ask how they feel about it.
  • Listen to them. Listen to them talk about the pet who died, about what they miss, or about wanting another pet to replace the one that passed away.
  • Be careful with the words you use with young children. Telling your son that you “put Fido to sleep so he’s not hurting anymore” can cause fear or confusion. Do your best to explain the decision to euthanize a pet that is in great pain.
  • Expect uncomfortable questions. When we thought we might have to euthanize one of our pets, my daughter asked if we do that to people. Children may question what happens to their pet when they die, or if they’ll ever see them again.

Losing a pet is often the first experience of grief a child has. Give them the space and permission to work through it on their own terms, but with your love and support. Talk to them about how it felt when you were a child and lost an animal you loved. Above all, let them know that the intense sadness they feel now won’t last forever.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jenise Harmon, LISW-S, therapist in Columbus, Ohio

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Wes

    Wes

    August 13th, 2015 at 10:37 AM

    I am pretty sure that I will be the person in the family who is most upset if and when something ever happens to our dog. He is my buddy.

  • Edward

    Edward

    August 13th, 2015 at 4:12 PM

    For me the grief has been so palpable, but I can understand that for a child all of that may be delayed until they have a firmer concept of what death really means. For them the concept is still abstract and they have a harder time grasping the finality of death, unlike adults who understand that this is forever. To us the pet may be irreplaceable but the child is already looking for something to replace that loss.

  • holly

    holly

    August 14th, 2015 at 7:30 AM

    There could be a temptation there to dismiss the feelings of the child, but it is important to know that their voice is being heard, that you are listening to those feelings and helping them get through to the other side of them.

  • JARED

    JARED

    August 14th, 2015 at 6:32 PM

    Very often the loss of a pet could be the first experience with loss that a child has, so this could be a very important time to talk to them about what happens when something that you care about or love is gone form your life. Some very powerful life lessons to be learned when you have to go through this, but if you say and do the right things this is somehting that could be with them for a long time.

  • Joely

    Joely

    August 15th, 2015 at 7:32 AM

    Oh this is the hardest thing, having to explain to a child why the one thing that they may love the most in their lives has died.

  • Shiloh

    Shiloh

    August 16th, 2015 at 10:49 AM

    It can be difficult to he;p the kids process this kind of loss when you have a hard time understanding it all yourself. For many of us our pets become like a part of our family, and just like any family member who dies, it is difficult to know how you will manage without this person or animal in your life. Of course as always life will go on and we will survive, but it is the survival without that in your life that can hurt the most. And when you are hurting like this it can be that much more difficult to try to explain it all to your children too.

  • brian

    brian

    August 17th, 2015 at 9:11 AM

    You might have the belief that not talking about the lost pet would be for the best but in my experience kids want to have a time when they can remember this pet and talk about their feelings. Sure, they might not have all the words for those emotions yet, but that is what we are there for as their parents.

  • Tabitha

    Tabitha

    August 18th, 2015 at 4:31 PM

    U treat them the same way u would want to be treated
    just because they r small does not mean they don’t deeply feel that same pain

  • Carolyn

    Carolyn

    August 22nd, 2015 at 8:18 AM

    You have to try to be strong for them because this is a loss that they will not be able to handle on their own. You should let them see your emotion too but you have to help them get past thinking of only the sadness of the loss but remind them of all of the good times that you all were able to spend together too.

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