The death of a family pet is hard for the whole family. Even older, more emotionally mature family members may struggle with the death of a much-loved family pet.
However, for children, it can be so much harder. For most kids, it will be their first experience of death. Their pet will have been a friend since birth, and the death of a pet will have a huge impact.
Indeed, it will shape the child’s understanding of death for some, and their first pet loss will be the template for how they handle death for the rest of their lives.
Even older children will struggle with the loss of a beloved dog. They may understand death but may not accept this death as inevitable, even blaming their parents for not doing enough.
Everybody, even young children, will have their own way of dealing with a dog dying and their grief. But, with a little extra support, you can help your child, whatever their age and developmental level, cope during a difficult time.
The most important thing is honesty. Telling a young child “, Buster ran away,” or “Honey went to live on a farm” might feel like it’s protecting your child from bad news but only postpones the pain and grief. Even worse, it risks the child living in the hope they will see their pet again.
Prepare Your Child for the Pet’s Death
You can’t prepare your kids for a sudden death like an accident, but often we know our pets are approaching the end of their time, either because of illness or old age.
In these cases, try to talk to your child about it. Find a quiet time in a place they feel safe, and explain what may happen. Tell them that you might not expect it immediately, but it might happen soon. Be ready for any questions your child might have.
Do Not Ignore Questions
When you do discuss the loss of a pet with your child, don’t ignore questions. While you will feel sad and may not to talk about it, those questions are how many children learn and come to terms with life’s events. With younger kids, be prepared for the same question to be asked multiple times.
If you simply cannot discuss it, then explain you are feeling sad too, but promise you will answer when your feelings aren’t quite so sad. And make sure you do.
Discuss Your Pet and Its Death, if Your Child Wants
Just as some children ask questions, some want to spend time talking. If this happens, be open to talking about the pet that died. Some might want to discuss happy memories and fun times as part of their grieving process. Others might ask about the dying process, wondering what happened or if the pet’s pain meant they suffered.
For emotionally mature children, this might mean an in-depth discussion. On the other hand, it might be a simple explanation for younger children that the dog was old, and their body stopped working properly.
If you have a belief system, then you can talk about heaven or the Rainbow Bridge. However, be careful not to use this as an explanation for death.
Offer Answers Appropriate for Your Child’s Age
You are the best judge of your child’s maturity level and how much the pet meant to them. So, make sure you give answers that will help your kids understand what has happened.
Older children might want detailed answers and even ask some morbid questions. For very young children, it might be enough to explain in general terms, telling them that animals, even their beloved pet, can get sick, and when they are very sick, they die.
But think about how the child might interpret your words. For example, explaining that a much-loved pet had ‘stomach aches, then died’ might seem an age-appropriate way to explain an illness but could cause anxiety when your child has their own stomach aches.
Avoid euphemisms; it’s the death of a pet
We use euphemisms all the time, but you should be clear about the pet’s death. Telling a young child that their much-loved pet has ‘gone to sleep’ or is ‘no longer with us’ may feel like making it easier to cope but just leaves the possibility of return.
Be clear about the finality of death. Although it’s hard, they have to understand it is an irreversible part of life when their pet dies.
Be ready for the grieving process
Everybody handles grief; differently, your child might cry a lot or seem to accept it silently. Younger children might not accept the death, expecting their animal friend to return, even doing things for their pet, like leaving toys out. Older children might be angry and demand an explanation. For many children, grief will cause them to act out of character.
Whatever your child’s response when their pet dies, don’t challenge it, instead accept it and allow them to work through their grieving process.
Be prepared for older children’s responses
Every parent will know that older children can be more challenging!
This might result in morbid questions from a child or demands for more detail from a child starting to understand life and death. So answer when you can, and help them find answers when you can’t.
Take your children to the veterinarian
Your vet will be used to dealing with the grief of people — kids and parents — who have lost a friend and family member. They will also know the many answers to the questions your children have. If your kids are old enough, and the vet is willing, take them along, so they can ask directly.
This might be especially important if you are having your pet euthanized. Then, they will be able to explain why it’s necessary and reassure your children that it is both painless and the best thing.
Help children to express grief their way
Often the best way to help children grieve the loss of special pets is to show them. Kids learn from what they see, so if you feel sad and want to cry about the loss of a pet, let them see.
Talk about how you are feeling, so they know you are affected. And affirm their feelings, too. Let them know everyone processes bereavement, even a pet’s death, differently.
Have a service to say good-bye
In the same way as humans, having a memorial service for your pet can help those who remain. This might include a burial or scattering of your pet’s ashes somewhere they loved. But even if you are not disposing of your body, think about other ways you can mark your dog’s life.
They were considering having a dedicated time when you can do things together to remember your pet. Perhaps encourage your child to draw pictures or share stories of things they did together (funny stories are best since they help focus on the happy memories).
Ask your children if they would want a new pet
There is no right or wrong way to approach this; some people will get a new pet almost immediately, while others may feel they can never replace the family member they lost.
However you feel, remember the pet was important to your kids, and they must help decide about new pets.
Common questions about pets and death
Do dogs know they are dying?
Experts are divided on this. Some believe that other animals have no concept of mortality, while others believe they know death and recognize when their bodies start to age and fail.
Do dogs have souls?
The regularity that religious leaders are misquoted as saying all living creatures go to heaven (most recently, Pope Francis in a 2014 New York Times article) highlights how much people want to see their pet in heaven. Given our connection with them, it’s understandable to hope that when our pet dies, they have an afterlife. But ultimately, this is a matter of your faith.
Is euthanasia painless?
Yes. The veterinarian will give them a shot to relax them, then another to stop their hearts. It’s quick and painless, and outwardly, it looks like they are going to sleep. If your pet has anxiety about going to the clinic, they can also provide a sedative before that last trip.
If you have lost a dog, our hearts go out to you. We know it’s a difficult time, and no words, whether advice on a website or the sympathy parents offer kids, can fully take away the pain caused by the death of a pet.
The key thing to remember, for your whole family, is that bereavement is a process that has ups and downs, but with time the sad feelings caused by pet loss will fade, leaving the love and happiness your family shared with your pet.
How to Explain a Pet’s Death to Children -- American Kennel Club
What to Say When a Pet Dies -- WebMD
Help your child cope with the death of a pet -- BBC
Pope Francis Did Not Say Dogs Go To Heaven -- Waffles at Noon