Pets are important members of the family and to some young children, the family pet is more like a furry brother or sister. This makes it even harder to explain when a beloved pet dies. For many children, the death of a pet may be the first experience they have with death and dying. Because children under the age of five have a limited sense of time, it is hard to understand why a pet isn't going to always be around. This makes it all the more important to approach the death of a pet with honesty and empathy.
*When talking to your child about a dying or dead pet, it is ok to use the word death (or died or dying). It is best not to say things like, "Jake went to sleep and now he's in heaven" (the last thing you want is for your child to connect sleep with dying or never coming back). Just be open without making up stories or circumstances. Keep things simple and honest.
Jake is really sick and Mommy and Daddy think he may be dying. That means that his body is not working and he may not be alive too much longer. When Jake dies, he won't come back. That makes me feel really sad. I will miss Jake so much!
If you have a religious belief about where your pet will go after death, you can discuss that as well, but the important part is that you explain that the pet will not come back. Links to some good children's books about the death of a pet are at the bottom of this post. Many deal with a "pet heaven" but some have a more secular viewpoint.
*Ask your child how she feels. Let her tell you as many times as she needs to. Listen empathetically and come up with ideas about how to remember your pet.
I hear you say that you feel really sad. I do too. Would you like to make a list of all the fun things we did with Jake? We could draw some pictures of all of Jake's favorite things, like balls, squirrels, and sleeping on the sofa.
*If your child is feeling emotional or down (or if you are and your child is reacting to that), communicate the situation to teachers and caregivers.
*Have a memorial service for your pet. Sing some songs, remember your pet's favorite things and fun times that you had together. This is important, even if you do not bury your pet yourself, as it provides some closure.
*Answer your child's questions about death, even if they continue for months after your pet's dies. It is important to let your child work through this on her own time. Adults still have trouble grappling with the concept of death and what it means. Give your child the ability to ask questions and answer them in the most honest and nonthreatening way you can.
The death of a pet is never easy but it can be used as a teachable moment. Allowing your child to grieve and ask questions will pay off later, as your child will be better able to cope with stressful situations. It may also help you work through your own grief.