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How to Talk to Children About Losing a Pet

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For the past decade, Bruce Wayne has been a fixture in my household. My now ex-husband and I adopted the cat as a companion for our other cat, Sylvia, but he ultimately became so much more than that to our entire household, especially our youngest daughter.

Shortly after we adopted Bruce, we noticed that he had some mobility issues. We eventually learned that Bruce has a condition called cerebellar hypoplasia, a condition that is essentially the feline version of cerebral palsy (which our aforementioned daughter has). Needless to say, Bruce and my daughter have been inseparable for most of her life.

Unfortunately, Bruce’s health has severely declined in recent weeks, to the point that our veterinarian has said there’s not much more we can do for him. This is the first pet loss my daughter has been old enough to understand, and it’s her “best buddy.” It’s heartbreaking, to say the least.

To say it’s been a difficult few weeks for us is an understatement, but I have also viewed it as a learning experience that I can share with others. If you’re also in the midst of explaining pet loss to a child, I hope these suggestions can help.

Plan Ahead

Unless your pet dies suddenly due to a tragic event, you’ll probably have at least a little bit of time between the news and your pet’s final days. If that’s the case, use this time to get a game plan about how you’ll break the news to your children.

If possible, try to break the news to them during a time of day when you’ll be able to comfort them and talk to them at length. Prepare some words to explain the situation to your child in a way that is clear and concise, but also age-appropriate. Try to not “beat around the bush” or use colloquial expressions that may not make sense to a young child.

Taking the time to prepare when, where, and how to break the news will make it easier on you and help you communicate what you need to say in a way that your child can understand.

Answer Questions

Children ask questions to help them understand the world around them. In fact, kids ask us questions about almost every aspect of our lives, and pet loss is no different.

Some questions your child may have include:

  • Can we do anything to make our pet feel better?
  • Will our pet feel any pain?
  • Does death last forever?
  • What will happen when our pet dies?
  • What will we do with the pet’s body?
  • Could I have done anything to save my pet?
  • What if I forget about my pet after they are gone?

It can be tough to answer every question your child has about their pet’s death. However, answering these questions will help your child process the loss and feel more secure during this difficult time.

Use Books as a Guide

Sometimes death and grief are complicated topics for children to fully comprehend. However, books can be a great way to present these sensitive topics to children in a way they can understand.

Some great books for explaining pet loss to your child include:

If possible, select several books to read over the course of a week or two before your pet dies. This will help your child prepare themselves and begin to process the loss so they aren’t caught off guard when the time comes.

Don’t Forget the Coping Skills

Although providing your children with information is important, it’s not the only way you can help your child work through this difficult life event. No matter how much you front-load your child with information, chances are they will still experience emotions like sadness, anger, and grief after this loss. Therefore, you need to provide them with healthy coping skills to deal with these overwhelming emotions.

Some coping skills you can teach your child include:

  • Positive reframing
  • Journaling
  • Healthy reminiscing
  • Talking about feelings
  • Distracting with enjoyable activities

When your pet is gone, make sure you model these coping skills. This will help your child remember to use them as well, and can even make your grieving process a family bonding experience.

Dealing with the loss of a beloved family pet is not easy. However, it can be especially difficult for children who have never experienced this type of loss before. Just remember that grieving the loss of a loved one takes time, and do what you can to support your child along the way. Eventually, your family will make it to the other side.

Getty image by harpazo hope.

Originally published: June 28, 2022
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