A beloved dog’s death is hard on everyone. Adults say things like, “It is so unfair that dogs don’t live long,” and, “I wish I could have given him some of my years.” They also say, “I don’t know how I can ever explain this to my child.” That is frequently the most challenging thing to deal with. A very young child may not understand that a pet’s death is forever, that their best friend is never coming home.
Older children will, of course, “get it,” but may still have questions, like “Couldn’t the vet do anything?” Being confrontational at the best of times, Teens might ask you if you just didn’t want to spend the money on veterinary treatment. We’ll talk about how to deal with that in a bit.
So, how are you going to explain your pet’s death to your child? Often, the death of a pet is a child’s first exposure to death. You know how it works – you had the dog, and then you got pregnant. Your child and your dog grew up together and were fast friends. So, how can you tell that child that he will never see his best friend again?
It’s hard, and everyone deals with it differently. All I can hope to do is offer some suggestions and guidelines to help you with telling your child, so here goes.
1. Don’t lie
I’m putting this first because it is the most important thing I can tell you. Above all else, do not ever lie to your child about why the dog is gone. “Danny went to live on a farm,” or “Danny ran away” is not going to cut it. You are setting yourself up for “Can we go visit Danny?” or for your child to begin searching for their dog. I know a parent who offered up the “ran away” scenario, and for years – I am not exaggerating, literally years – the child asked everyone he met if they had seen Danny.
Not only is this an unspeakably cruel thing to do to children, but you can also be sure that once they find out (and they almost certainly will) what happened to their dog, they will never fully trust you again. When you lie to your child about his dog’s death, you’re not sparing him pain. He’s already in pain because his dog is gone. Your lie does not ease that pain, and it does not help your child find closure by going through a natural grieving process.
2. Prepare your child
I realize that this is not always possible. For example, if your dog has died suddenly in the presence of your child, there’s no way you can prepare for that.
On the other hand, if your dog is old and you think that you may soon have to deliver bad news, talk with your child as soon as you can. Choose a quiet place where your kid feels comfortable – this isn’t something you want to do over burgers and fries at McDonald’s. You can tell younger children something like, “Danny is getting old, and that means that he might die soon. He won’t be with us anymore. It’s probably not going to happen today or tomorrow, but it may be soon.” Be prepared for further questions.
3. When you get those questions, give specific answers
You don’t have to go into great detail with most kids who are still at the pre-school age, but don’t use vague phrases like, “Danny went to Heaven to be with God.” It’s lovely that you have a belief system, but if you say things like that, your child will want to know why God needed Danny and why, if God is so powerful, he can’t give Danny back. The last thing you want to do is end up in a theological discussion with your child. “Danny got sick, so his body didn’t work right anymore, and he died” is good enough.
If your child is old enough to understand death and wants more information about it, offer that information. Most of the time, a child will ask questions appropriate for his or her age and level of understanding.
4. Avoid euphemisms
When explaining a beloved dog’s death to your child, use the proper terminology. For example, don’t tell your child that his dog “went to sleep.”
The dog did not go to sleep; the dog died. If you say that your child’s much-loved pet “went to sleep,” the child’s natural course of reasoning is going to lead him to believe that he, too, could go to sleep and not wake up. Sleeping and death are two very different things, and your child needs to know this.
5. Be open to discussion
Some children are going to want to know what happened to their dog after he died. This transition will be tough to explain for the parent. As I’ve already suggested, saying “He went to heaven to be with God” isn’t always the best answer. Sometimes, “I don’t know, but I would like to think that he is somewhere good, but somewhere that we are not allowed to be” is sufficient.
If your children do believe in the concept of God and Heaven, though, they may take comfort in the story of the Rainbow Bridge. They will believe that Danny is in a good place – a place where they can’t go just yet, but someday, they will see Danny again.
6. Never ignore questions
It’s not just your child that’s going through a grieving process – you are too. Because of that, you might find that your child’s constant questions about their dog’s death are painful for you. As a parent this is not the time to shut down, though – your child’s questions mean that he/she needs to talk, and there looking to you for support.
Young children may ask you over and over when their dog is coming home. Explain it as many times as you have to. Older children may want to know, in detail, what exactly happened to their dog. Give them that information.
7. Expect unusual behavior from your children
If your teen reacts to his dog’s death by running to his room, slamming his door, and refusing to speak to anyone, accept that. The teen years are difficult in the best of circumstances, and these are not the best of circumstances. Your child is working through the grieving process in the only way he knows how. Be ready to talk to him when he comes out. He’ll need extra support at that time.
With children under 6, you might find that they don’t fully accept the death of the family pet. Perhaps you come upon your toddler sitting in a corner, giggling and making strange gestures. You ask him what’s going on, and he says, “I’m playing with Danny!” This isn’t a cause for concern. Instead, tell him that he should say hi to Danny for you, and tell Danny that you love him and miss him. This loss shall pass.
8. With older kids, talk about euthanasia
This won’t be possible if your family pet has died suddenly, but in the case of an elderly or ill dog, your kids should know about how euthanasia works and why it may become necessary. Please give as much or as little detail as is appropriate for your child’s age to help them understand death by euthanasia.
At all age levels, explain that euthanasia is painless. The vet will give the dog a shot to relax him and then another shot to stop his heart. It will happen in a matter of seconds.
9. With older kids, expect morbid questions
You can explain euthanasia to young kids pretty easily. They just need to know that you helped their dog depart his life in a way that didn’t cause pain. A teen, however, might come back with, “How do I know it works? How do I know that Danny isn’t going to suffer? How do I know that he’s not really dead and he’s out there somewhere waiting for me to come and get him?”
Hard questions for sure. To deal with this, see the next suggestion.
10. Take your children to see your veterinarian
Your vet can explain the process of euthanasia to your kids and reassure them that their dog will not suffer, will not come back to life, and will be taken from his life as kindly and gently as possible. Your vet might be better equipped than you are to deal with the questions children will ask.
Teens are going to be complicated. They’re already difficult and might want to ask hard questions like, “Was it just that Danny’s treatment was going to cost money?”
In situations like this, your vet can explain to your recalcitrant teen that no money in the world would ever have saved the dog. It was just time for him to go. Your teen will accept that a lot more readily from a veterinarian than he will from you.
Fortunately, older kids will have a higher maturity level than young ones and will usually understand why euthanasia is sometimes the kindest solution. For young children, the vet will probably tell them something like, “Danny is very sick, and he is going to die soon. I am going to give him some medicine that will help him to die in a way that doesn’t hurt him.”
11. Tell your kids that it’s okay to cry or not cry
You’ve been crying, haven’t you? You remember what your pet meant to you, and you wonder how you’re ever going to be able to go on. Maybe your child catches you in a difficult moment, standing in the kitchen crying into a tea towel.
It’s okay. Tell your kid that you’re sad you had to say goodbye to the family dog. Tell him that if he wants, you can cry together.
Of course, the flip side of this is that some people are unable to cry. They just go numb. You probably won’t get this question from a toddler, but a teen might ask you, “Why can’t I cry for Danny?” Tell him that everyone processes emotions differently. It’s okay if he doesn’t cry right away, and it’s also okay if he never cries.
12. Have a memorial service
When the humans that mean a lot to us die, we typically have a memorial service to honor them. You can do the same for your departed dog.
If you have chosen cremation, scatter your dog’s ashes where he loved to play. If you are burying him, dig a grave in a place he liked, and hold a graveside service. Ask friends and family members who knew and loved your dog to say a few words.
If you choose burial, I wouldn’t advise allowing your young children to see their dog’s body. Instead, I recommend buying a nice Rubbermaid container in the correct size but telling your child that this is now the dog’s private place where no one else should be. They shouldn’t disturb him, but it is okay to say a prayer or a poem over the casket or place flowers on it.
These are the essential things you should do to help your child understand and deal with his dog’s death. I want to offer one more suggestion, though.
Ask Your Kids if They Want Another Dog
This will be a tough call – do you rush right out and get a new puppy, or wait? The answer is every bit as individualistic as you are and as your dog was. I had known people who had grieved for years for a lost dog and only got another one when it was practically forced upon them. But, on the other hand, I also know people who have gone out the day after a beloved dog’s death and gotten a puppy simply because they had to focus on something other than the grief, and taking care of a new dog provided precisely the right sort of distraction.
I don’t think there’s a right way or a wrong way. When kids are involved, though, you should consider their feelings. A lot of the time, kids are a good deal smarter than we give them credit for. If they want time to grieve for the lost dog, let them have that time and do your best to help them over the rough spots by answering their questions and allowing them to express their feelings. On the other hand, if they want a new puppy right away, be thankful that their first experience with a dog was so good that they want to repeat it as soon as possible.
People Also Ask
1. How do you explain death to a 7-year-old?
7 is an interesting age. On the one hand, 7-year-olds may still be playing with imaginary friends, seeing fairies in the dust motes that come through a sunny window, and generally not understanding that death means that they will no longer see the person or pet who has died. You may need to repeat your explanation frequently, but a simple “Dying means that Danny can’t be here with us anymore” should suffice.
2. Should a 7-year-old attend a funeral?
This should be up to the child. If he wants to attend a funeral, be it for a human or a dog, by all means, let him. By the same token, though, a child should not be forced to attend a funeral.
3. Do dogs know when they are dying?
This question has been debated over and over. Some experts believe that dogs have no concept of their mortality. Others believe that as a dog’s body begins to shut down, the dog may be aware that he will no longer be a part of this world.
4. Do dogs know when people are dying?
Most experts believe that dogs pick up on changes in bodily function, smells, variations in body temperature, and other things that indicate their beloved human is not well and is about to pass.
5. Do dogs have souls?
According to a 2014 article in Time Magazine, an expert stated that dogs do have souls. Pope Francis has said, “One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.”
6. How do I know when it’s time to put my dog down?
When he’s not having fun any longer, it’s probably time. Likewise, if he’s in pain that can no longer be treated, it’s time.
7. Do dogs die in peace when put down?
They do. Your veterinarian will administer a shot to relax the dog and then a second to stop the dog’s heart. Your dog will not suffer -- the entire procedure is over in mere seconds. If your dog is usually anxious about going to the clinic, your vet can provide a sedative for you to administer before making that final trip.
8. Can a dog wake up after euthanasia?
This is the stuff of urban legend. Dogs do not wake up after being euthanized. If you’re present for euthanasia, you’ll know that for sure. If you feel you absolutely can’t be there, view your dog after the procedure is complete, and there will be no doubt in your mind that he is gone.
9. When will I get over losing my dog?
This is a tough question. The fact is that you will often grieve as much for a dog as you would for a lost friend or relative, and experts suggest that it can take up to five years before you feel that you can go on without your loved one. I think that much of the time, you never “get over it,” you just learn how to deal with the loss. If you find that you really can’t cope, there is no shame in visiting a grief counselor.
If you have lost a beloved dog, my heart goes out to you. I have been down that road many times, and I know that it’s never easy. But, I hope that you will have love and comfort from family and friends and that you will come to realize that it is true that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved. May you find peace.