For most kids, pets are more than just animals their families own — they're members of the family and the best of friends.
Unfortunately, the joy of owning a pet goes hand-in-hand with the heartbreak of losing one, whether because of old age, illness, or an accident.
And that can be very hard. After all, family pets often are the first to greet kids in the morning and after school. Your pet may be the one your child looks to for comfort and companionship when ill or feeling unpopular or upset.
While it's impossible to shelter kids from the loss of a pet, you can help them cope with it. And because a pet's death might be their first time losing a loved one, the grieving process can help kids learn how to cope with other losses throughout life.
Sharing the News and the Grief
One of the most difficult parts about losing a pet may be breaking the bad news to kids. Try to do so one-on-one in a place where they feel safe and comfortable and not easily distracted.
As you would with any tough issue, try to gauge how much information kids need to hear based on their age, maturity level, and life experience.
If your pet is very old or has a long illness, consider talking to kids before the death happens. If you have to euthanize your pet, you may want to explain that:
the veterinarians have done everything that they can
your pet would never get better
this is the kindest way to take the pet's pain away
the pet will die peacefully, without feeling hurt or scared
Again, a child's age, maturity level, and questions will help determine whether to offer a clear and simple explanation for what's going to happen. If so, it's OK to use words like "death" and "dying" or to say something like "The veterinarian will give our pet a shot that first puts it to sleep and then stops the heart from beating." Many kids want a chance to say goodbye beforehand, and some may be old enough or emotionally mature enough to be there to comfort the pet during the process.
If you do have to euthanize your pet, be careful about saying the animal went "to sleep" or "got put to sleep." Young kids tend to take things literally, so this can conjure up scary ideas about sleep or surgery and anesthesia.
If the pet's death is more sudden, calmly explain what has happened. Be brief, and let your child's questions guide how much information you provide.
Sticking to the Truth
Avoid trying to gloss over the event with a lie. Telling a child that "Buster ran away" or "Max went on a trip" is not a good idea. It probably won't alleviate the sadness about losing the pet, and if the truth does come out, your child will probably be angry that you lied.
If asked what happens to the pet after it dies, draw on your own understanding of death, including, if relevant, the viewpoint of your faith. And since none of us knows fully, an honest "I don't know" certainly can be an appropriate answer — it's OK to tell kids that death is a mystery.
Helping Your Child Cope
Like anyone dealing with a loss, kids usually feel a variety of emotions besides sadness after the death of a pet. They might experience loneliness, anger if the pet was euthanized, frustration that the pet couldn't get better, or guilt about times that they were mean to or didn't care for the pet as promised.
Help kids understand that it's natural to feel all of those emotions, that it's OK to not want to talk about them at first, and that you're there when they are ready to talk.
Don't feel compelled to hide your own sadness about losing a pet. Showing how you feel and talking about it openly sets an example for kids. You show that it's OK to feel sad when you lose a loved one, to talk about your feelings, and to cry when you feel sad. And it's comforting to kids to know that they're not alone in feeling sad. Share stories about the pets you had — and lost — when you were young and how difficult it was to say goodbye.
After the shock of the news fades, it's important to help your child heal and move on.
It can help kids to find special ways to remember a pet. You might have a ceremony to bury your pet or just share memories of fun times you had together. Write a prayer together or offer thoughts on what the pet meant to each family member. Share stories of your pet's funny moments. Offer lots of loving hugs. You could do a project too, like making a scrapbook.
Keep in mind that grieving over the loss of a pet, particularly for a child, is similar to grieving over a person. For kids, losing a pet who offered love and companionship can be much harder than losing a distant relative. You might have to explain that to friends, family members, or others who don't own pets or don't understand that.
Perhaps most important, talk about your pet, often and with love. Let your child know that while the pain will go away, the happy memories of the pet will always remain. When the time is right, you might consider adopting a new pet — not as a replacement, but as a way to welcome another animal friend into your family.