Losing a pet—whether it’s a goldfish you won at the carnival three days ago or a dog you’ve had their entire lives—can be devastating for kids. Death is a hard concept for them to wrap their little heads around, and this will likely be the first time they confront it. Here, some expert-vetted ways to help them heal.
Don’t run out and get a new puppy right away
The impulse to “fix it” is understandable. But slapping a Band-Aid over a fresh wound or distracting kids from their pain shouldn’t be the goal. Instead, let kids feel their feelings, talk about the loss as much as they need to and reminisce about happy memories with the dearly departed. A memorial ceremony during which you formally say goodbye may help. If a child prefers to grieve privately, you might encourage him to write the lost pet a letter.
Tell the truth
We all know the cliché about the family dog who went to live “on a farm” somewhere. But skirting the issue may inadvertently lead to fear, mistrust and confusion. (Fido “went to sleep” so does that mean that I too won't come back when I go to sleep??!!)
Be prepared: They may worry you’re next
Most kids under six can’t comprehend that death is inevitable, universal and irreversible. Being introduced to those ideas can feel like the scariest thing ever. As one writer put it, “Reassure your child that Mommy and Daddy are healthy, but the cat died because it was very sick. Help her feel secure by explaining that death isn't contagious.”
Let them see you cry. Fight the urge to put on a happy face for their sake. Holding your children’s hands through the mourning process can be a profoundly teachable moment. Reading age-appropriate books about this type of loss may also help.
Be extra accepting
The death of a loved one (yes, even a four-legged one) will likely inspire a repetitive slew of unusual questions about everything from decomposition to God. Children may pretend they are playing with their departed pet months later, or pretend play that a stuffed animal is “dying.” They may seem perfectly fine one minute and then burst into tears over seemingly unrelated events the next. One study found that even years later, some children still described the loss of a pet as “the worst day of their lives.” Participate in this type of play. Make your home a judgment-free zone. In a nutshell? Be as patient as humanly possible.