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Valencia Family Resource Library Guide: Death of a Pet

Welcome

Grief is actually a healing process that takes place after traumatic experiences such as the loss of a pet. It is a serious matter, but also an opportunity for growth individually and as a family. Pets may die, become lost, or be stolen, all of which can result in an sense of loss for a child. The loss felt during any of these experiences is painful for all family members, but adults, wanting to minimize the grief in their children, can often unintentionally make things worse than they are. Parents often lie to children in an effort to soften the blow, because they are inadequately prepared to discuss loss, death, and grief with children. This guide will give you strategies to talk to your children in an honest way so they understand what has happened and can heal in a way that affords growth, better enabling them to deal with difficult times as they grow older. 

Understanding Your Child's Bond

As a parent, it’s important to understand how close your child’s bond was to their pet. When a close bond is formed, a child will refer to their pet as “best friend”, “brother” or “sister”, or even as “parent.” (Corr & Corr 1996) As such, when the bond is broken, their grief can be overwhelming, feeling the same as losing a sibling, child, or best friend. (Corr & Corr, 1996) Respecting this bond through honest conversation is the best way to assist your child through the grieving process. 

How to Start a Conversation

In conversation, there are three simple steps for parents and helpers to follow:

(a) be honest with children;

(b) encourage children to be involved; and

(c) avoid euphemisms about death.

(Corr & Corr, 1996)

Listening to your child’s questions will give you insight about what they understand about death already and what stage of grief they are going through. 

A Few Things to Avoid

A few common tactics parents have developed to try to minimize their child’s pain include the following. Also considered are the potential repercussions of these actions:

  • Lying to your child by telling them their pet ran away.
    • While this is an easy solution to the problem, your child now believes that the animal they have loved as a family member did not care about them and chose to leave their love behind. In addition, the child will ultimately learn the truth and may wonder what else you have lied to them about.
  • Telling children their pet has gone to heaven when you do not believe in heaven
    • Your child is likely to ask you questions about what happens to a pet after it dies.
    • For example, the child may ask if pets have souls or spirits, and whether their pet will live on in some other place or time after death. Be honest about your own beliefs on the topic. This will spare the child from confusion or any unintentional feelings of being lied to later on. You can also ask the child what his or her own thoughts and beliefs are, or ask your child what s/he has heard from others about their beliefs.
    • Furthermore, there's nothing wrong with letting your child know you're not sure what happens, if that is true. An open dialogue will allow your child to explore this challenging topic in a way that respects your own cultural and/ or religious beliefs as well as recognizing that people have different views about the topic.
  • Telling children the pet is taking a long nap, or won’t wake up again.
    • Death is different than sleep. Some pets do die in their sleep, but it’s important that children realize the pet has died. Children and their loved ones go to sleep every night. Thinking their pet went to sleep and never woke up can scare children into thinking the same may happen to them or their loved ones. In addition, this thought may be too complex or frightening for them to verbalize.

Talking with Kids About the Death of a Pet

Ages Birth Through Preschool

Children of this age do not have a solid concept of what death is. Though they may say they miss their animal, they will also be aware of the emotions and stress of their family members. (Buzhardt & Steib, 2008) Children mirror and take on the emotions of others at this stage of their life, so it’s important to reassure them with love, patience, and kindness. In addition, you may be going through the grieving process yourself. Don’t hide this from your child; instead, model healthy behaviors. If you are crying, let your child know it is because you miss your pet. Children at this age ask a lot of questions that may make you sad, but answer them as honestly as you can. Children also repeat questions at this age as a way to process information. Your honest answers when grieving or feeling better will provide them with what they need for their own healing process.

Grade School and Beyond

Grade school aged children begin to have an understanding of death that becomes clearer as they become preteens and adolescents. For this age group, the 5 stages of grief will be more apparent, and your attention to verbal and physical cues will assist you in understanding what your child needs to talk about. 

Remembering Your Pet Together

Talking about your pet can provide comfort long after your pet is gone. Your family will have stories to share that will comfort everyone. These questions may spark this sharing:

  • How did my pet make me a better person?
  • What are your favorite memories with your pet?
  • How did your pet grow and change with your family?
  • Did your pet ever seem to behave like a human?

These Healing Activities can help you come up with ideas to honor your pet.

The 5 Stages of Grief

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified 5 stages in the grieving process. (Kübler-Ross, 1969) These stages are typically experienced when we suffer a loss, though not necessarily in order. Sometimes a particular stage or stages are repeatedly revisited. Not all stages are necessarily experienced, and the amount of time spent in the stages is different for everyone. Some may take only minutes to process, while others can take years. It’s important to understand that this timeline has nothing to do with the amount of love a person felt for their pet. These stages are not signs of mental illness, but rather indicators that your loved one is going through the healing process of grief.

Denial

The world feels overwhelming and meaningless. Denial allows us to process our loss over an amount of time suitable to each person by suspending belief. When we begin to ask questions, we know that we are beginning to heal. However, as we begin to heal, the feelings we were originally denying begin to surface and must be dealt with.

Anger

This stage of the healing process can feel endless. You question everything with anger, but underneath anger is your own pain. Although we live in a society where anger is not welcome, anger can provide one with the strength needed during this period of healing. Anger is also representative of the love that is felt.

Bargaining

If your pet is dying, you may find your child bargaining: “If he gets better, I’ll never yell at him again.” If your animal has already passed, this may sound more like “what if” statements. This stage can lead to feelings of guilt which are sometimes merited and at other times are not. If, for example, your child left a door open and your cat ran out and was hit by a car, the child may feel guilt for being careless. Don’t be afraid to discuss this guilt with your child and to reassure them that we all make mistakes, we simply need to learn from them. As Buzhardt & Steib point out, “Learning from mistakes is constructive; blaming ourselves for them is not.”

Depression

This stage embodies a feeling of great emptiness that seems to last forever. Often the person experiencing depression withdraws from family, friends, or school. Please remember that crying is a natural part of grieving, and don’t encourage your child to “stop crying.” They will stop when the time is right.

Acceptance

This stage is about accepting the reality of a new world without your pet. It’s understanding how to adjust in this world without your pet and knowing that you may not feel “OK,” but you can move forward. While for some this may include getting a new pet for your family, the American Humane Society suggests carefully considering this and not rushing into a new pet relationship. Paying close attention to feelings, continuing your discussion, and continuing to participate in healing activities together will let you know when the time is right to welcome a new pet into your family dynamic. 

NPR Life Kit: Tips for Talking to Kids about Death

Be Honest And Concrete: Tips For Talking To Kids About Death by NPR, all rights reserved by the author. 

If Your Pet Needs to be Euthanized

The following are suggestions to begin this process in a way where your child will understand and feel respected

  • Prepare by getting a pamphlet from your vet explaining the euthanization process.
  • Start the discussion with your child with some of the prompts suggested.
  • Involve the child in the decision making process. Some important points to mention to your child are:
    • Prepare to see changes in your pet. He or she no longer feels good and no longer experiences pleasure the way they used to.
    • Although you are making a decision to end your pet’s life, everyone is sad, including the vet and you, the parent.
    • At many clinics euthanasia can be performed as a ceremony, and children may be present if they wish. For other clinics euthanasia can be performed in your own home. Talking to your vet about what is right for your family should include the input of your child. 

When to Draw the Line with the Truth

Being honest about your pet’s death is important. There are instances when you should consider what your child needs to know and provide that information delicately, while still being honest. For example, Buzhardt & Steib recommend being honest if a pet is killed by an automobile accident, but simply telling your child the animal was hurt so badly the doctor couldn’t make her well again will be enough. A detailed post-mortem discussion will not help your child. 

Resources

Corr, D. M., & Corr, C. A. (1996). Handbook of Childhood Death and Bereavement. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Buzhardt, L. F., & Steib, S. D. (2008). Can We Have One?: A Parent's Guide to Raising Kids with Cats and Dogs. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

The Humane Society of the United States. “Coping with the Death of Your Pet.” (2017). http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/resources/tips/coping_with_pet_death.html? referrer=https://www.google.com/ Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan.

The Healing Library

This kit was put together by a team of people, including:

• David Moorhead, children’s librarian at the Lewiston (Maine) Public Library

• Bonnie Thomas, a licensed children’s counselor specializing in art and play therapy

• Megan Emery, guide author and experience designer coordinator at the Chattanooga Public Library

• Kirsten Cappy, a children’s literature advocate and owner of Curious City 

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