Nov. 16, 2023: Talking To Kids About Loss

November 16, 2023: Talking To Kids About Loss

By Katie Simpson

On top of dealing with the passing of your family's furry friend, your young children aren't sure what to make of things. They may have questions you don't know how to answer. Finding age-appropriate responses when talking about death can be challenging, but this difficult conversation is important to help your child make sense of the loss of a pet. 

The circumstances of your pet's passing will help you decide when and how to broach the topic with your children. If your pet is older or ill, consider sitting your child down and talking to them before the death happens. If you have to euthanize your pet, consider explaining that euthanasia is the kindest way to end a pet's life without making them hurt or feel scared. Depending on your child's age and maturity level, explain that the pet was not going to get better if they were ill. 

The words 'death' or 'dying' aren't bad words. Depending on your child's age, you might feel comfortable using these words. If not, or if you have a very young child, you might want to explain what euthanasia means. Avoid using the phrase "put to sleep" when talking about death, as this might conjure up scary ideas about sleep, anesthesia, or surgery since children tend to take things literally. Explain that they might hear the phrase "put to sleep" when people talk about animals dying, but that children are never "put to sleep" to alleviate fears your child might have. 

Whatever you do, don't lie to your child. You are grieving too, and it may seem safest to spare them the truth, but lying about a pet's passing will not do you any favors long-term. Your child will still mourn their pet if you tell them they ran away or went to a farm. Worse, when your child uncovers the truth, they might be upset or angry with you for lying. Use your own understanding of death and your child's questions to help guide the conversation. "I don't know" is a fully reasonable explanation that shows that adults sometimes don't have answers. It's okay to tell kids death is mysterious, just like it's okay to tell kids their pet went to Heaven or passed on, if that's your household's belief. It may be prudent to explain that death happens to all living things, just like leaves fall off trees in autumn and the sun sets at night, especially if this is your family's first experience with death. Many things can't be controlled, and death is one of them. No one is to blame or at fault for the loss of a pet. 

You know your family best. Let their questions and your comfort level guide a conversation about death when it's time. Use simple and clear language, give your child time to grieve, and let them express their feelings. 

There are lots of great resources out there to help your family talk about loss and grief. Remember to always watch or read with your child to help answer questions they may have. 

Family Resources:

The Invisible Leash, by Patrice Karst

Saying Goodbye To Lulu, by Corinne Demas

Dog Heaven, by Cynthia Rylant

Cat Heaven, by Cynthia Rylant

The Legend Of The Rainbow Bridge, by William N. Britton

Copycat, Bluey 

Death Of A Goldfish, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood 

Farewell, Mr. Hooper, Sesame Street 

Mother's Day, Rugrats

When A Pet Dies, PBS Kids

An Age-By-Age Guide To Explaining The Death Of A Pet To Children, by Rachel Sokol