How to Explain the Death of a Pet to a Child Gently

Updated April 11, 2022
Girl Placing a Flower on Her Pet's Grave

Telling children about the loss of a pet can be very emotional and difficult. You don't want to make your children feel sadder than they already are, but it's important to help them get through this grieving process in a healthy way. In this article, learn ways to gently discuss this sensitive subject with your children, so they understand and come to terms with the loss of their pet.

Consider the Age of Your Children

Before you begin discussing the death of a pet with your children, consider the youngsters' ages and how much they will be able to process. You may find it helpful to discuss the subject with them separately, so you can explain what has happened in terms all of them will understand.

The other benefit of discussing the death of a pet with your children separately is that you will be able to give each of them individual comfort and answer questions without having your other children interject. Comforting and giving your children extra attention during this difficult time will help them feel secure and safe because they have you to lean on.

Telling Children About the Loss of a Pet: Help Your Children Grieve

When telling children about the loss of a pet, one of the best things you can be is open and honest with them. This means tactics like telling your kids that your pet has gone to live with someone else will only confuse them; and they'll ask questions about why your pet had to leave. Discussing death with your children may not be comfortable, but it's important for them to learn about it and process it effectively.

Telling Your Children About the Death

Approach the subject calmly and sensitively. If you are crying right from the start, your children will feel your anxiety and will become anxious themselves. While you don't have to hide your crying when discussing the death with your children, it's best not to come running into their room upset. This can frighten your child; so instead, display your grief in an authentic, yet calm way.

Start the discussion slowly by telling them about the condition of your pet that led to the death. For instance, if your pet had an illness, ask your children if they remember taking the pet to the vet. Once they understand that, you can break the news of the death.

Avoid using terminology like "gone away," "passed away," or "put to sleep." This can confuse children and may even lead to a fear of traveling or going to bed. Instead, use the words "death" or "dying." This will help to explain the permanency of the pet's death.

What to Do After Breaking the News

 Child Drawing Cats

Once you've told your children that their pet has died, it's time to do some damage control. Depending on how they took the news, you can choose how to explain what death means. For example, you may let them know that their pet will not be around the house anymore, and they won't be able to play with them, pet them, or see them anymore.

It can be helpful to share resources like comforting poems or quotes to ease the child's mind. Many children and adults alike are comforted by the well-known story of the Rainbow Bridge. Numerous children's books that specifically address pet loss also exist, including Dog Heaven (for children ages three to five), The Invisible Leash: An Invisible String Story About the Loss of a Pet (Ages four to eight), and Paw Prints in the Stars: A Farewell and Journal for a Beloved Pet (ages five and up). Sharing these stories after you break the news of the pet's death can gently support your discussion.

Communicate to your child that it's natural for them to feel a variety of emotions: sadness, confusion, frustration, or anger. You can also let them know what emotions you're feeling. Make it clear that it's safe for them to tell you how they feel and ask any questions they may have surrounding the pet's death. While you don't need to go into detail surrounding the circumstances of the passing, it's important to address their questions directly.

Handling Tough Questions

At this point, you may start getting many questions about death. You might even be surprised at how much insight your children have on the topic. Here are some ways you can handle some of the tough questions:

Where has our pet gone?

Depending on your religion, you may want to handle this according to your faith. For example, if you are a Christian family, you may want to explain Heaven and that God is now taking good care of your pet. If you don't want to approach this question with your faith, you can explain that when a pet is no longer living, they must be buried.

Are they in pain?

This is a good question to answer because it will give your children some relief. You can simply answer that the pet can no longer feel pain caused by their illness or injury.

Why did they have to die?

You can approach this in a number of ways. Again, considering the age of your children, you can concentrate on the illness that took your pet, focus on your faith and that God decided it was time for your pet to live with Him, or a combination of both.

Will my pet ever come back?

It may hurt you and your children to tell them that your pet will no longer return, but it is necessary that they receive closure by knowing that they will never see their pet again. Confirming the permanence of death is important.

Helping Your Children With Closure

Boys and dad in yard burying pet

One of the most important ways you can help your children grieve is by helping them gain closure. This process can include performing a memorial service for the pet. Regardless of whether your pet is buried, cremated to ashes, or if you do not have the remains, you can still hold a meaningful end-of-life ceremony dedicated to their lost friend.

  • Encourage your children to write a poem, letter, or draw pictures to represent how they feel. You can also have them create a memorial plaque or a box with some of your pet's favorite things, and bury it near the pet's gravesite.
  • At the landmark, have your children say something about the pet and what emotions they're experiencing. It's a good idea for you to join in so they know they are not alone in these feelings.
  • The final part of the memorial is to say goodbye to the pet. Each person should say farewell and then you should all walk away together.

Gently Help Your Child Cope With a Pet's Death

Remember, share in the disappointment and grief you feel with your children. It will make them feel as though the emotions they are experiencing are normal, and they will follow your lead on recovering from this difficult situation. Don't rush your children to grieve, and always provide comfort as much as needed.

How to Explain the Death of a Pet to a Child Gently