For animal lovers of every age, losing a pet can be a significant loss. Our pets very much become members of the family, and there is a noticeable change when they are suddenly gone. Children process death differently than adults. It’s important to keep explanations of death simple and honest. Be sure to answer your children’s questions and allow them to express their feelings.
- Understanding—Young children do not have an understanding of the permanence of death.
- Keep it simple—Avoid details about the pet’s death. Try not to use euphemisms like “put to sleep” or “went away.” Statements like these can cause extreme fear or anxiety about going to sleep or leaving the house. Even saying something like “fluffy was very sick and died,” can instill a fear or confusion that whenever someone they love is sick, they will die and go away.
- Be honest—Well-meaning adults will try to explain to toddlers that death like it is like going to sleep and not waking up. Or they might tell their children the pet ran away. Honesty is best to avoid confusion or being forced to perpetuate a lie.
- Share your grief—Tell them you are sad too, and encourage them that it is OK to express their feelings. It is normal to be mad or sad about the death of a pet. Feel free to express your sadness through crying with your child.
- What to say—“Fluffy died this morning. That means she is not coming back. I am very sad; it is OK if you are sad too.” Again, they do not understand the permanence of death, so they will likely repeatedly ask for or look for their pet. Continue to say, “No she isn’t here; I wish she was here, too.”
Young children will share the sadness of the adults around them. Chances are you will experience more sadness than your toddler, especially when the pet predates your child. Give yourself time to mourn, take care of yourself, and moderate the level of emotion you express in front of your young one.