How to help your child mourn their pet

May 27, 2020

The death of a companion animal is especially hard on children. Here are ways to help during these difficult times.

For most families, the death of a companion animal is one of life’s tougher milestones. Children can find this period even more distressing as their pet is frequently their first playmate, who leaves a gaping hole once they’re gone. Here are some tips to help your child grieve.

Tell the truth
When a companion animal dies, many parents seek to hide the sad truth from their child to protect them from their first encounter with death. Some may pretend the pet has run away. Others may address the subject with abstract concepts, such as “the animal is in heaven”.

Attempting to shelter your child from grief may in fact slow the healing process. Your child might wait for their animal’s return, or believe that they’ve been abandoned. The death of an animal is part of learning to live with grief. By telling your child the truth, you’re equipping them with tools to manage grief later in life.

Be open
Children younger than 9 years of age don’t understand the irreversible nature of death. That’s why it’s important to use the right words. Expressions such as “fallen asleep” or “gone away” may make your child scared of going to bed or being briefly separated from a family member. Explain things to your child simply and clearly, with vocabulary that’s appropriate for their age. Spare them the minute details, but respond openly to their questions—as best you can.

Help throughout the grieving process
It’s important to create the setting for your child to say goodbye to their companion animal. Consider organizing a mini-ceremony to celebrate the pet’s life, inviting your child to share their memories or creating a photo album or drawing.

It’s also important to encourage your child to express their feelings. You can start by sharing how you feel about the animal’s death to help them talk about their own feelings. Be sure to create the opportunities to express their grief—whether it’s for a cherished dog or a goldfish. By playing down their emotions, there’s a danger that your child may stifle them and turn inwards.

Many parents consider replacing a deceased pet with another companion animal. But it’s best to first wait a while and let your child express their grief.

The death of a beloved animal is difficult to process—whatever your age. But by enabling your child to express their grief, you will help them through the period. There are books on grieving an animal’s death designed to help children. If you feel that your child is having a hard time, talk to your veterinarian for more information.


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