For many of us, a valued member of the family and close confidant of your children is the family pet — a dog, a cat or maybe a pet goldfish named Oscar. However, there is an element of pet ownership that we all try very hard to avoid thinking about — the unfortunate moment that your child’s best animal friend dies.
Often times, as parents, we may try to shield our young children from the pain of losing our pets by vaguely explaining death or by using phrases such as “gone to sleep” or “they’re living on a farm now.” But is that the best way for us to speak to our children about the death of a beloved family pet?
According to Dr. David Hall, a board-certified internal medicine and pediatrics doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, the best way to help your young child understand and cope with the loss of a family pet is to be honest and not hide or shield your child from it.
A child’s concept of death
It’s important to first understand young children’s concept of death and how they may react based on that. “Coping with death and grief is different for children at different ages based on their developmental stage,” says Dr. Hall. While a 3-year-old may need to hear several times that their pet has died, a 6-year-old will often have a better concept of death and be curious about it.
The American Academy of Pediatrics explains that a child’s concept of death evolves in the following way:
- Under 2 years old — don’t recognize death, but sense the emotions around them
- 2-6 years old — may ask where their pet is or don’t understand their pet is not coming back
- 6-10 years old — curious about death and may be preoccupied with it
- 10+ (adolescence) — may stop themselves from asking questions to not upset others around them
What to say and how to say it
“As difficult as it may be, when you speak to your child about your pet’s death, it’s important to clearly explain things,” says Dr. Hall. It may be appealing to use euphemisms such as “they’ve gone to a better place,” but phrases like that won’t do you any favors and will likely confuse your child if they are quite young.
Using real words such as “death” and “died” may seem harsh, but explaining those real words in an age-appropriate manner is key. “Young children don’t necessarily understand that death is permanent. To help your child understand, you should address the death of a pet by explaining how they won’t come back, their senses no longer work or they don’t move anymore,” explains Dr. Hall.
In your communication, it’s also important to make your children as comfortable as possible. Speak calmly and listen patiently if your children have questions.
In the very unfortunate event that you have to euthanize your pet, then the key points to communicate to your children are that everything was done to help your pet, it is the best way to take your pet’s pain away, and your pet can die peacefully.
How to say goodbye
Saying goodbye is an important element of grieving. When it comes to helping your children express their grief about losing their best friend, Dr. Hall suggests giving them time to remember their pets.
“Parents can help their children grieve and say goodbye several different ways. They can have a burial or memorial, allow their children to write about or draw their pet, or depending on a family’s spiritual or religious beliefs, they may want to pray as well. The key is to be open to having the conversation with children and allowing them to express their emotions. Involve them in the conversation and ask how they would like to say goodbye.”
For many children, a pet’s death may be their first experience with loss. If your child is overwhelmed by grief, Dr. Hall encourages parents to connect with their child’s pediatrician for additional guidance.