Dealing with the death of a pet: helping children understand pet loss
As anyone who’s experienced it will know, losing a pet can feel truly devastating. Hard as it is on us adults, coping with the loss of a pet is one of life’s toughest lessons for young children.
Whether it’s their first experience of bereavement, or they were particularly close to their pet, it’s a difficult time – and it can be hard to know how to break the news.
Here are our top tips to help children and young people handle the death of a furry friend.
Pets quickly become part of the family – day in, day out, they’re always there for your children to play with, to confide in, or to greet them when they arrive home from school. But pets don’t have the lifespan of their owners, and this eventually leads to the grief of bereavement.
Sometimes their pet has literally been a lifelong companion – if you lose a cat or dog who’s been part of your family since your children were born, they’re likely to feel a strong sense of loss simply because he’s no longer there.
It’s natural for your child to experience a cycle of different emotions after the death of a pet, ranging from denial and anger to sadness and guilt. The feelings generated by the loss of a pet pack a real punch – and can be as pronounced and confusing as any bereavement.
You can help your child understand that all these emotions are natural, and that it’s healthy to express how they feel, rather than to keep their feelings inside. As a parent or carer, don’t feel you have to hide your sadness from your child – showing your own emotion can help your child feel less isolated, and realise they’re not alone in their grief.
Telling children about the death of a pet may be one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do as a parent or carer.
Thinking carefully about the best time and place to tell them is an important part of breaking the news. Make sure you have a quiet moment, away from distractions such as the TV or internet, and be sure they know you’re on hand to give them the emotional support they need to deal with their loss.
The approach you take will need to reflect your child’s age, maturity, and – most importantly – their character. Sensitive children find loss particularly hard to deal with, but that doesn’t mean those who are older or appear more resilient won’t find it hard in their own way – even if they don’t show it.
Toddlers and small children may be too young to grasp the concept of death, so think carefully about how much detail you give them.
Whatever age your child, it’s best to be truthful about what’s happened, rather than relying on the old cliché of “he’s gone to live on a farm” – even though that may seem kinder, it doesn’t help your child to process bereavement in the long-run.
Don’t be afraid to use words like death or died, too, rather than vague terms such as ‘passed away’ or ‘crossed over’, which can be difficult for children to understand.
If the loss of your pet has come at a particularly tough time in your child’s life – in the middle of important exams, perhaps, or after the death of a family member, you might want to seek help from a counsellor or family therapist. You may also want to inform your child’s teacher if they’re particularly upset.
If you have a very elderly or ill cat or dog, you may be considering euthanasia. While this is an incredibly difficult decision, it does at least give you the chance to say goodbye. Choosing euthanasia can give you the chance to make your peace with the fact that he or she will no longer be around, in a way that a sudden death doesn’t allow.
Talk to your children about the reasons for the decision – chances are, if your pet is very old and has been suffering for a while they will understand that it is the kindest thing to do.
Depending on the circumstance of your pet’s death, it’s not always possible to say goodbye. To make the loss easier to bear, it can help to spend time thinking about the fun times you’ve spent with your pet in celebration of their life. You may like to suggest your children paint or draw pictures, or write a poem or a story about their furry friend, then pin these up in your home.
If you’re religious or spiritual, you may want to think about organising a special ceremony, cremation or burial – talk to your vet about the options. In time you may feel ready to welcome a new pet to your family, but for now, it’s okay to give yourself time to grieve.
For expert advice on dealing with the loss of a cat, dog or other pet, contact your local vet. To find your nearest recommended vet or pet clinic, use our 'find a vet' page.