How to Talk About the Death of a Pet With Your Kid

Losing a pet is hard enough. Helping your child through the grieving process can be even harder. Here's how experts suggest parents navigate this difficult moment.

A mom looks at her son while hugging him in a sunny spot against a blue and white wall
Photo: Lightsy/Stocksy

Baz sat on the couch watching my husband and I take the phone call from the emergency vet.

"I'm concerned," the vet said, and we could feel it through the headphones we shared. "I'm really concerned."

Jack, our nearly 12-year-old black Labrador mix, had hemangiosarcoma, blood-vessel cancer known as the silent killer. The prognosis was bad. We had to make a choice.

We hung up the phone and I turned to my son. "Baby," I said, and for a second could go no further.

How do you tell your 6-year-old son that he is about to lose one of his best friends? Here's how experts suggest parents navigate this difficult family moment.

Acknowledge and Talk About the Loss

"The first thing to recognize is that pet loss is real," says Rabbi Sanford Akselrad, the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, Nevada. "How we say goodbye to a beloved pet can also begin a certain amount of preparation in helping children understand death in general."

That can look like discussing lifespans or even holding a simple pet funeral to help a child better grasp the concept of death, says retired clinical social worker Julie C. Arnold, with whom Rabbi Akselrad co-wrote Remembering a Beloved Dog, a guide focused on preparing children for pet loss.

But it's important to be honest with your child and answer their questions in an age-appropriate way. Arnold says it's better to ask what questions your child has rather than if there are questions. "Do not flood a child with more information than they want, but do not withhold information they ask for," she says. "Make sure you understand the question."

I grew to realize that listening closely to Baz was part—but not all—of the work. It was also my job to understand his emotional needs, anticipate what was helpful, and set aside information that might prove unnecessary or too much for him to handle. Moreover, I understood that candor—as appropriate—constitutes a major part of the conversation.

Share Your Own Feelings

One major concern was how to manage my own grief while helping Baz navigate his. Joshua Russell, Ph.D., associate professor and anthrozoology program director at Canisius College, says it was perfectly appropriate, and, in fact, healing, to reveal my feelings.

"Parents' emotions are important and sometimes quite obvious to children," he says. "One mother I spoke to told me that after the family pet died, she tried her best to hide her own sadness from her children. One day, her son drew a picture of her crying over the laundry machine—something he had observed her doing when she did not think he was watching. He knew she was sad about their dog, despite her efforts to center his emotions. It seems that parents and children who share their emotions together feel comforted by the fact that they are not alone in their sadness and grief. It is an opportunity for learning how healthy emotions can be when they are expressed."

Pam Regan, Ph.D., a social psychologist and statistician at California State University Los Angeles, believes fostering open conversations about a beloved pet offers strong connection between parents and children. "Talking about that third creature brings the two of you closer together," she says. "It's a shared experience; it's a shared love."

Dr. Russell agrees, adding that normalizing talk about death, grief, and sadness can help a child appreciate relationships with cherished companions—something I have personally seen through Baz's ever-growing relationship with our other dog, Maizie.

I ultimately learned that hiding my tears wasn't the answer. Instead, I used them to build a bridge between myself and Baz to show him he wasn't alone.

Validate Their Grief

I want Baz to know that I see and understand what he is experiencing and that his father and I are here to help him through it. Dr. Regan says that's one of the most crucial elements in the healing process.

"Do not ignore this event as if it didn't happen or is not a big deal," she says. "There's something in psychology called disenfranchised grief—grief that's not socially acknowledged or accepted. We do this to children; we almost assume that they're not capable of feeling the grief that an adult feels. We take that away from them. We don't allow them the privilege of their grief."

And remember, kids can handle their sadness differently. "Don't assume just because you can't see their grief that they're not feeling it," says Dr. Regan.

Rabbi Akselrad adds that some children may initially feel somewhat uncomfortable discussing their emotions and may display them in ways that differ from the way adults might. "They'll be sad. They'll shed a tear. Then they'll let go of it and go play," he explains. "Then maybe a few months later they'll want to draw a picture or help raise money for a dog charity. You've got to listen to your child and take your cues as to where they're expressing their pain and their loss."

Today, my son and I can share a smile and a laugh—as well as our tears—when remembering Jack. Whether it's the gentle swish of his flag tail, his patient smile, or the way he enjoyed being gently bopped atop the head, he remains firmly entrenched in all our hearts.

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