We love our pets – we have 3 dogs & 2 cats & have loved & lost other beloved dogs & cats as our kids grew up.
No matter what your age, losing a pet is hard. For many kids, though, the death of a pet brings an added challenge: It’s often their first experience of losing someone they love.
When a well loved pet dies, children need consolation, love, support and affection more than complicated medical explanations. They need to have their feelings understood and validated.
Their reactions will depend on their age and stage of maturity but it isn’t until the age of 9 years that children fully understand that death is permanent and final.
There are many ways you can tell your child that a pet has died from using a soothing voice or finding a comfortable and familiar place to tell them but the most important thing is to be honest. Trying to protect them with vague and inaccurate explanations can create more anxiety, confusion and mistrust.
Children often have questions like:
Why did my pet die?
Is it my fault?
Where does my pet’s body go to? Will I ever see my pet again?
If I wish hard enough and am really good can I make my pet come back?
Does death last forever?
It is important to answer such questions simply, but honestly.
Your child may experience sadness, anger, fear, denial, and guilt when their pet dies or they may suddenly become jealous of friends who have pets.
Let your child know it’s perfectly normal to miss their pet after they die and encourage them to come to you with questions or for reassurance and comfort whenever they feel sad or overwhelmed.
There is no best way for children to mourn their pets. They need to be given time to remember their pet and it helps to talk about the animal with friends and family or even at school. Mourning a pet has to be done in a child’s own way.
After a pet has died, your child may want to bury the pet, make a memorial, or have a ceremony.
Other children may write poems and stories, or make drawings of the pet. Ask your child the way they would like to express themselves and let the situation be guided by them.
Also the death of a pet may cause a child to remember other painful losses, or upsetting events or to experience bad dreams so keep listening, supporting and allowing the grieving process to take its own time – grief is not linear and can’t always be fixed like a broken arm in a certain time and there’s no right or wrong way to grieve and there’s no telling how long it may take.
Everyone is different.
I remember a time when I was teaching a Circle Time lesson on healthy eating when something came up about the death of one of the children’s hamsters which naturally led onto talking about the death of one of the children’s grandparents.
It was a really moving but healing lesson which caught me by surprise but because I felt very comfortable talking about these issues the children all joined in and supported each other and learnt that healing from grief can be painful and slow but something we all experience. By letting the boy talk openly and by acknowledging the grief we all learnt a great deal.
Little ones may not understand what it even means to die, or why it must happen. These stories start with the clear facts, introduced with compassion.
Some useful books for children are:
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie, illustrated by Robert Ingpen
When the death of a relative, a friend, or a pet happens or is about to happen . . . how can we help a child to understand?
Lifetimes is a moving book for children of all ages, even parents too. It lets us explain life and death in a sensitive, caring, beautiful way. Lifetimes tells us about beginnings. And about endings.
by Fred Rogers
In this useful book from the First Experience series, the affable star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood helps children share feelings of the loss of a pet while offering reassurance that grieving is a natural, healing thing to do.
“A sensitive and sensible first book about death.” —The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
On What Happens to Pets After Death
by Cynthia Rylant
We don’t know what happens to pets after they die but of course it depends on your religious views, but your kids are going to ask where their beloved pet is now — so it’s helpful to have books on hand that will help you find consoling answers.
In these reassuring books death is sidestepped itself but they focus on pet paradise which sounds a very happy place for dogs & cats.
Dog Heaven is a place filled with wide lakes, loud geese, angels, and children — which dogs love ‘more than anything else in the world’
In Cat Heaven, cats snuggle up on cozy laps, enjoy lots of cat toys, and eat lots of tuna!
In these lovely books, both cats and dogs invisibly return to earth to check on their people & family and children will love this idea & with a variety of skin tones these books are refreshingly inclusive too.
by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Erik Blegvad
My cat Barney died this Friday. I was very sad. My mother said we could have a funeral for him, and I should think of ten good things about Barney so I could tell them…
But the small boy who loved Barney can only think of nine.
Later, while talking with his father, he discovers the tenth – and begins to understand….
This is a wonderful book about having little control over death but choosing to see loss with positivity, with lessons about the life cycle and nature for children who may not understand these things yet but have questions about the observable world around them.
by Shirley Hughes
The death of an old cat fairly early in this story, coupled with the story’s leisurely movement toward the arrival of a new kitten, allows for the gentle suggestion that things do, in time, get better.
by Corinne Demas, illustrated by Ard Hoyt
A young girl and her lovable dog, Lulu, are the best of friends and do everything together. As Lulu ages and starts to slow down the girl shows her compassion by making Lulu comfortable in her bed and helping to feed her. When Lulu dies the caring, young girl must comes to terms with her loss and find a way to say goodbye. This lyrical and touching story will tug at the heartstrings of all readers- young and old.
One day, Lulu couldn’t stand up. She slept all day. She didn’t eat. She wet her bed. The next day, when the little girl returns from school, Lulu is dead.
Lulu is buried in the garden on a autumn day, and the young girl mourns. Time passes and, the following summer, the family adopts a puppy. “You’re not Lulu,” the girl whispers to him. “Still, I’ll love you, too.”
The Rainbow Bridge…A Dog’s Story, by Judith Kristen
The concept of a rainbow bridge is prevalent in stories that discuss the death of pets and animals.
This particular book is about Henley, a sheepdog who lived a full and vivid life. Even in death, his story continues as he comforts pet owners from the other side of the Rainbow Bridge. He explains that sadness is normal, grief is okay, and that the pet you loved is running with friends on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge.
This book provides the perfect amount of light in a dark time—in the form of a bright and vivid rainbow. (Ages 4 & up)
Badger’s Parting Gifts, by Susan Varley
This is a true classic.
Even though Badger is a woodland creature, this story will resonate with anyone who has lost a favorite pet. Badger’s friends are sad that their friend has died, but by sharing the memories and gifts their furry friend has left them, they are able to work through the sadness and find the joy.
A great book to use to discuss death of an animal, whether a family pet or a favourite creature at the zoo, in a thoughtful way. (Ages 4-8)
Paw Prints in the Stars: A Farewell and Journal for a Beloved Pet, by Warren Hanson
A more interactive book, this is both a story and a journal that can become a keepsake for a cherished pet that has passed away.
Told from the perspective of the pet, the book helps owners work through the emotions of losing a beloved animal companion.
A child can help add pictures of their pet, as well as their collar tags, so that they will have a special book to revisit in the coming years when they want to remember their furry family member. (Ages 5 & up)