How to Talk to Your Kids about Pet Loss

Talking to your kids about pet loss is not an easy topic to bring up. Pet loss is an extremely painful loss and it is perfectly normal for the whole family to grief that loss. Children are no different. They often have special relationships with their pets, and they certainly feel the loss of a pet very keenly. 

However, children can find it very difficult to grasp the concept of death. Moreover, they often struggle using words to describe and talk about their many feelings and emotions they may be experiencing.

We’ve outlined several strategies and activities that you can do together with your child to teach them about grief, to comfort them through their grieving process, and allow them to discover, experience, and process grief on their own time and in their own way.

Let’s get started.

Grief is a Normal and Natural Reaction to Pet Loss

The most important thing to note here is that grieving the loss of a pet is a normal and natural reaction for children who have experienced pet loss.

Just like with adults:

  • Grief is a normal and natural reaction to loss.
  • Grief takes time to fully adapt, accept, and integrate into their lives.
  • Grief doesn’t have a time limit! There is no magic finish line for grief.
  • Children deserve to know the truth. The naturally know when you are hiding or withholding something from them. If you don’t tell them what is going on, they will make up their own story.
  • Grief is unique to children. Every relationship, every loss is a unique loss, unique to them and their experiences and should be acknowledged as such.
  • Everyone grieves differently, and this goes for children too. What works for one person will not necessarily work for another person. Even if the loss is similar. Even if they are in the same family. 
  • Children can carry grief throughout their lives.
    When children are not allowed to grieve, talk about their feelings, or otherwise express what they are feeling, they will internalize and hold everything inside. They hold onto any sadness, guilt, anger, and create their own grief baggage that they will carry with them for years or the rest of their lives. Just like adults.

Your Hangups About Talking to Children about Grief

Do you struggle with how to explain pet loss to your children?

If you have issues or you are uncomfortable talking to kids about grief, watching them cry, or suffer, or go through the grieving process, you are not alone here. Chances are, you don’t like to watch adults to through it either. But, watching a child suffer is worse, because we spend most of our time protecting them and shielding them for the horrible things that can sometimes happen in life.

Unfortunately, there is literally nothing you can do to prevent them from grieving.  Children will grieve at one point or another in their lives. Try as you might, you cannot stop this. Grief is a part of life; it’s a part of living. Grief exists because in our lives we have to say goodbye to the things we have grown to love.

If you take a few moments right now to think about it, you will probably realize that one reason you don’t want to talk about death, grief, and loss is because YOU ARE UNCOMFORTABLE talking about it.  This uncomfortableness and awkwardness is a social construct we impose on them throughout their lives because we are uncomfortable and awkward talking about death.

Children don’t have the hangups that adults do about grief. Kids are generally more comfortable and natural discussing death; in fact, they can often be curious about it. They will probably ask a lot of questions about death and grief. It’s us “adults” with all the issues that prevent us from talking openly about our feelings of loss. 

"Kids are kids first. They are grievers second."

Patricia Murphy - Josie's Place, San Francisco Tweet

Remembering Your First Loss as a Child

Before we get into the different stages below, it’s helpful to take a few moments to remember and reconnect with the first loss you remember having as a child.

  • How old were you? Where did you live?
  • Did you have someone to talk to? Family? Friends?
  • Did you talk about your loss as a family, or did your family never discuss it or try to replace the loss?
  • Did you get the support you needed?
  • How did you memorialize your loss?
  • Do you still think about your loss?

If you can, close your eyes when you do this. Really picture yourself back in that time. If you didn’t have someone to talk to for support, what questions did you want to ask? What did your parents tell you? How did they handle it? Did you see your parents cry or display emotion over the loss?

Spending a few minutes thinking about your first loss will help put you back into the mindset of the child you are here to support today. 

Ask yourself:

  • What is my child feeling right now? What questions do they have?
  • If I wasn’t supported in my first loss, how can I make sure my child is supported and allowed to ask questions and grieve?
  • How can I allow them to grieve? How can I provide a safe and comfortable space for them?

PetCloud Disclaimer

This website and our blogs, articles, and any comments are for informational and educational purposes only.

The information provided is accurate to the best of our knowledge and, although this information is heavily researched and based on many peer-reviewed journals, articles, books, case-studies, and other licensed therapists and counselors, IT IS NOT PROVIDED BY A LICENSED THERAPIST. This information is not meant to diagnose or treat either medical or behavioral health conditions. It should not be relied upon for decision-making in any specific case. 

There is no substitute for consultation with a qualified mental health specialist/counselor who could best evaluate and advise based on a careful evaluation. 

It is understood that no guarantee or warranty arises from the information provided or discussed on this blog. See our Terms and Conditions for more information. 

Childhood Developmental Stages of Grief

How they view death

At this stage, babies experience loss as an absence. They typically won’t notice anything but the absence of a primary caregiver. So, they probably won’t even notice the sudden absence of a family pet, unless that pet was with them 24/7. 

How do they respond to grief?

Any significant absence will be noticed, such as the absence of the primary caregiver. At this stage, they have lost the person who knows how to soothe them best. They may be less responsive or expressive, they may seem more anxious, have less of an appetite, loss of sleep, and an increase in irritability.

What can you do?

They need to have another primary caregiver ASAP. Their ability to form a new attachment to another may take time, because the previous caregiver knew all the soothing techniques.

If you are the grieving primary caregiver, the best thing you can do is to take care of yourself. Talk, cry if necessary, but remember to sleep and eat yourself and get moderate exercise.

How they view death

At this stage, baby’s still have no real understanding of death and loss. If they have a concept of death, they most likely view it more like going to sleep.

However, they can certainly sense your grief. For example, if mommy is sad, the baby might try to emulate mommy’s facial expressions or try to cry like mommy is doing. Baby’s learn all their expressions from watching their parents, and this certainly includes sadness, depression, and anger as well as the normal smiles and giggles.

How do they respond to grief?

Even though they may not understand what’s going on, during this stage a baby can still regress in their development, withdraw from their primary caretaker, have more temper tantrums, and be more reluctant to explore and discover new things. This goes in tandem with reduction in eating and quality of sleep.

What can you do?

The best thing you can do at this point is to continue to provide a place of comfort and safety for your baby. If you are the grieving primary caregiver, remember to take care of yourself. Talk, cry, tell stories if necessary, but get some sleep, remember to eat, and try get moderate exercise every day.

What grieving activities can you do together?

Tell or act out stories of your pet. Show them pictures and tell them the stories behind those memories. Reliving these memories, after all, is how we continue the bond we have with our pets.

Color or draw pictures of your pet. As a family, draw or create your favorite memory that all of you have together. Remember to tell the story as you do, because doing so will also help you out.

How they view death

At this stage, children view death more like going to sleep. If they have a concept of death, they certainly don’t understand that it is permanent.

They may believe the pet is still living somewhere else and may come back home at anytime. If you buried the pet, they may be worried that the pet is still hurting, struggling to breathe, or is hungry or thirsty. 

How do they respond to grief?

Some children also see death as contagious and begin to fear that their own death (or that of others) is imminent. They sense the loss and sadness, and can certainly see yours, but they don’t often comprehend what they’re feeling nor do they know how to express it. 

They may have an intensified fear of separation, which is normal; many children describe this as a heavy feeling in their chest.

Regression in behavior is common. Bed wetting can happen, bursts of anger or even violent play with other children can happen (especially in boys), general withdrawing from others, difficulty sleeping and nightmares, and reduction in appetite and enthusiasm.

What can you do?

They will ask lots of questions, and the best advice is to answer them honestly with short answers. Try not to embellish. Don’t use abstract concepts like, “we put her to sleep” or “she went to heaven”. Using phrases like these can confuse children and introduce fear of going to sleep at night or anger at heaven for taking something from them. It’s best to use words like died and dead. “Sweetie, Molly died yesterday and she’s not coming back”.

You can help differentiate between dying from old age and sickness with just being regular sick by using phrases like “Sweetie, Molly was very very very very very very sick, and she died”. Using that many very’s help separate “normal” sick from “old-age” sick in the child’s mind 

Tell them as soon as you can. One thing to note is that they understand at this stage that something has happened. If you don’t talk to them, they will create their own narrative of what happened in their head. They may blame themselves. 

Give them a role in creating a memorial. If you plan to euthanize your pet, let them know ahead of time. Tell them what’s going to happen and why, using basic words and lots of very’s or other appropriate words. 

What grieving activities can you do together?

One of the best things to do in this stage (and others) is to create a memorial as a family. Find a shoe box or buy a plain wooden box to decorate. Give each family member a portion of the box to decorate as they see fit. Whatever memories that they would like to draw, let them. Then as a family, place your cremains, memorabilia, photos, collars, toys, or whatever else you would like to place in the memorial box. Go one at a time, each person placing the item and saying (1) what it meant to them, (2) why they chose it, and (3) the memory behind it. Tears are totally normal, and encouraged here. This is a sad ceremony, and this is where your children start learning how to grieve. They learn that tears are OKAY to share and shed when we lose someone we love.

Like adults, children also lack the vocabulary to express their grief and describe what they’re feeling. It can be helpful to act this out or draw pictures about how they feel. Color is very useful here. Give them 5 colors to choose from (red, blue, green, yellow, and black). Tell them to pick the color that best describes how they feel. Then, tell them to draw on their human body outline paper printout where it is that they feel this emotion. It will  give you a lot of information, and you can talk and engage further with them depending on what and where they draw.

How they view death

At this stage, kids still view death as temporary and reversible, very similar to watching a cartoon where a character dies in one scene and reappears again in the next, healthy again. They may still view death like sleep. 

How do they respond to grief?

They may become very curious about death and its implications. They will probably ask many, many questions.

They may feel responsible for the death or blame themselves in some way. “Blazer died because I got mad at him and wished he would die”. It’s important to talk to them about what they feel and how they feel about your pet.

Again, they may revert to an earlier developmental childhood state because they find it to be a more comfortable place. They may start bed wetting, have fits of anger, loss of concentration in class, withdrawing from friends and family, trouble sleeping and having nightmares, and loss of appetite.

What can you do?

Answer their questions as openly and honestly as possible, using language appropriate to their age group. 

Repetition, repetition, repetition. They will ask the same questions over and over again. Prepare for this. You will have to say the same things many times. 

Give them a role in planning the memorial.

If at all possible, it is SUPER important to give them the chance to say goodbye, especially if they were close to the pet. Remember that their grief is unique to them; they had this entire imaginary world and experiences with the pet that you have no idea about. Let them say goodbye. 

Return as soon as you can to some routine and predictability. They just lost their pet who was their confidant, play buddy, the one who never said no to them, and the one person who they had any authority over. They may feel vulnerable and shaken. Give them structure and confidence again. 

What grieving activities can you do together?

One of the best things to do in this stage (and others) is to create a memorial as a family. Find a shoe box or buy a plain wooden box to decorate. Give each family member a portion of the box to decorate as they see fit. Whatever memories that they would like to draw, let them. Then as a family, place your cremains, memorabilia, photos, collars, toys, or whatever else you would like to place in the memorial box. Go one at a time, each person placing the item and saying (1) what it meant to them, (2) why they chose it, and (3) the memory behind it. Tears are totally normal, and encouraged here. This is a sad ceremony, and this is where your children start learning how to grieve. They learn that tears are OKAY to share and shed when we lose someone we love.

Draw your feelings exercise. We often lack the vocabulary to express how we feel, even as adults. So, let’s create our own vocabulary. Make up your own words together. Use the name of the pet if it helps. “Blazified – verb – Feeling super angry, but only at nighttime”. “I’m sorry I got so Blazified when you told me to brush my teeth last night. I’ll try not to get Blazified in the future”.

Make a scream box. This is a cardboard box made with cardboard tubes and stuffed with tissues. It’s designed so that a child can scream into it without making loud noises. It’s sometimes good for them to scream when they’re feeling overwhelmed with grief and anger.

Talk to their teachers and let them know what has happened, especially if the loss was sudden, tragic, or if they saw it happen. Trauma and PTSD is real, even in children. If the teacher is aware, they may talk to the class in general about loss. There is a fun exercise using candy that can help kids see that loss and death is all around us and that it’s nothing to be afraid of. 

How they view death

At this stage, children are more able to understand and grasp the concepts of death. This is the beginning of logical thinking. They may know about its permanence, that it’s irreversible, but maybe not completely grasp the total finality of it.

How do they respond to grief?

They respond to grief in a number of ways in this stage. They have very similar emotional ranges as adults now, and can think more like adults. 

Like earlier stages, they can blame themselves for the death, like they were somehow responsible for their death. Maybe they left a window open, didn’t feed them enough, or didn’t walk them enough or play with them enough. This regret over actions, or lack of actions, can quickly lead to guilt and internalization of grief.

They can develop problems at school, difficulty concentrating and engaging with learning, withdrawal from friends and family, acting out. Sleeping and eating patterns can be disturbed.

What can you do?

Talk to them openly and honestly about death. Answer their questions. They may have a lot, and they may be radically different from earlier stages and/or more morbid in nature. Allow them to talk about death.

If they are crying and emotional, sit and share that space with them. Don’t run from it. It’s super uncomfortable watching your child cry and grieve; it’s a natural human and parental response to immediately want to run in to comfort and make it all better. Resist the urge to diminish their grief, or replace their grief. Don’t say things like, “It’s okay, we’ll get you another pet”, or “Don’t be sad sweetie, they’re in a better place now”. In truth, they SHOULD BE sad! They have lost something precious and irreplaceable in their lives. Their grief is real, and they should cry! Let them. Cry with them if you can; if you can’t, then sit with them in that space without trying to make it better. 

Give them a role and let them in on the choices that you will be making. Tell them what euthanasia is. If at all possible, it’s SUPER important to give them the chance to say goodbye, especially if they were close to the pet.

At this stage, you can tell them the things that you personally believe happens after we die. Where do we go? Is there an afterlife? Do you believe in heaven? Tell them that you REALLY believe and why. 

Allow for physical outlets, especially in boys. Sports, hiking, and generally spending time outside are very good. 

What grieving activities can you do together?

Create a Grief First-Aid Box. This is a box that contains all the things that they turn to that always cheer them up. Like a memory box, it can contain photos, chocolate, maybe a funny or memorial DVD, something soft like a blanket, a recording of their meow or bark, a lock of their fur, their collar, or whatever they have that will cheer them up. This is something that they create to turn to when they feel the world closing in on them in their grief.

Remembrance activities. These are activities that you would do periodically as a family to remember your pets. Sit around and tell funny stories, watch home movies, look at pictures, talk about their feelings, and especially talk about how sad they were right after it happened. This is mainly to show how much they have progressed in their grief. Often times, when we are grieving (and adults are the same way), we don’t see our day-to-day progress. We don’t realize how much we have progressed through our grief. When we purposely think back to how we were a week ago, a month ago, or right after their death, we can better see just how much we have progressed.

Encourage them to start journaling. This doesn’t always have to be just writing. Nowadays, we have phones, computers, and other electronics that allow us to do voice recordings and video recordings. These are often a better (and faster) way to get our thoughts and emotions out. Again, these are good to look back on later to judge how far we have progressed in our grief as well as serving as a way to remember things about our pets.

Setup playdates with other children. We talk about this in our YouTube video, but basically, this is how we teach our kids how to interact with others when we are grieving or when they are grieving. They will look to you for guidance; show them how you support your friend and their child. Your child can then learn to support and express themselves with other people. If your child isn’t the one who is grieving, you can invite someone over who is. Then your child can see how you interact with them and learn how to comfort and be present with someone else’s grief. This is great for all kinds of reasons, but the biggest is building a community where we can all feel comfortable and supported expressing our vulnerability and grief with others.

How they view death

At this stage, teenagers have formal operational problem solving abilities. They are capable of abstract thought. They know that death is permanent and irreversible, although they may fantasize about people returning from being dead. They pretty much have an “adult” understanding of death and all of its complexities. 

How do they respond to grief?

This is a very tumultuous time in their life for a myriad of reasons. They are neither children, nor adults. They can feel more isolated, more awkward, and more withdrawn.

At this stage, they care quite a bit about what their peers think of them and may turn to them for support more than their parents. 

Ages 12-14 years: They tend to be more self-conscious, withdrawn and private. They are sensitive to how their peers will react to their loss, they are afraid of being made fun of, being cast out, or generally, just being different. 

Ages 15-16 years: At this stage, they often see themselves as invincible and can act out accordingly. They engage in more risky behavior, including sex and drug use. 

Ages 17-18: They are more able to talk about death at this stage and generally can have a more “mature” approach of death and more “adult” style reactions to death.

It’s important to note that depression can occur during any part of this phase, which can be a serious thing. There is often anger at parents, and the loss of a pet can send that anger boiling over. Non-compliance, rule-breaking, rebellion, rejection of former teaching, and other acting out can be expected for severe or traumatic pet loss. Suicidal thoughts can happen as well. 

What can you do?

Give them a role. Let them in on the choices that you will be making. It’s SUPER important to give them the chance to say goodbye, especially if they were close to the pet. Include them; don’t isolate them by making this decision on our own.

The absolute best thing you can do here is just to be present AND LISTEN to what they have to say. Don’t bring up old arguments, old discipline, other failures they may have had. Sit with them and allow for uncomfortable silence to happen. Let them talk. Give them the space to talk. When they do talk, DON’T INTERRUPT!! Let them finish whatever it is they are saying. They need to be heard, they need to be listened too. Anything else will make them feel disenfranchised, and they will turn to their peers for support, the internet for information, or drugs/alcohol/sex/risky behavior for grief outlets.

Don’t attempt to fix their grief. That’s not something you can do. There is nothing we can do to take someone’s sadness away; the only thing we can do is to sit there in that space with them. Be present in their grief. Don’t try to make it better. If you have a catch phrase that worked for you, keep it to yourself; rest assured, they probably have heard you say it before and don’t want to hear it again. We have a YouTube video about Being Present for Grieving Friends that has a lot of good points about how to support them through grief.

Encourage them to talk about it. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. But, do it anyway. Remember, when you don’t talk about it, they will feel sad. When you talk about it, they will feel sad. So you might as well show up and talk about it and listen to whatever it is they have to say. 

What grieving activities can you do together?

The Grief First-Aid Box is also a really useful tool here. This can also include additional age-appropriate items such as ‘Permission to call their friends if they really need to after bedtime’, or ‘Permission to stay home from an after school or weekend activity’. You know best, and you have your own rules.

Grief Card Deck: This is a deck of cards that create the space to talk about death. Each card asks a different question about death, and help to get people to talk more openly about what death means to them, how they want to die, what they want when they are on their death bed, and many other things. In our grief and death avoidant culture, it is advantageous for you to do this activity with them too. For example, do you want to be intubated and kept artificially alive? If you were in an accident and unable to make the choices for yourself, who in your life would make that final choice for you? Have these conversations now. There isn’t any need to make it weird or awkward. This card deck really helps get that conversation going.

Resources

Activities coming soon. Keep checking back or sign-up for our mailing list.

In the meantime, you can email us at woof@petcloud.pet for a custom made activity.

If you have an idea for an activity that has worked for you or your family, please tell us about it in the comments below. We’d love to hear about it!

Children’s Books:

I’ll Always Love You
~Hans Wilhelm

The Tenth Good Thing About Barney
~Judith Viorst

When a Pet Dies
~Fred Rogers

Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping
~ Marty Tousley​

Section 1: Introduction and Outline

1:03 Disclaimers
1:26 General Lesson Outline
2:09 San Francisco Public Library Event
3:28 Grief is normal & very similar to how adults grieve
5:14 Issues & hangups with talking to kids about pet loss
7:00 A child’s grief is unique to them
8:47 Growing through grief
9:48 Repetition, repetition, repetition

Section 2:

11:28 Remembering your first loss
12:50 Teaching your child how to support their friends through grief
15:38 Things applicable to all children
18:25 Three basic stages of loss and recovery

Section 3: How grief differs based on age

20:25 Age 0 – 10 months old
21:29 Age 10 months – 2 years old
22:22 Age 2 – 4 years old
25:34 Age 4-7 years old
30:48 Age 7-11 years old
47:08 Age 12-18 years old

Section 4: Wrap-up and Grief Activities

Section 5: Resources

Websites:

Josie’s Place for Bereaved and Families (San Francisco, CA)
www.josiesplace.org

The Dougy Center (Portland, OR)
Dougy.org

National Alliance for Grieving Children
www.childrengrieve.org

Camp Erin – A camp for grieving youth
https://elunanetwork.org/camps-programs/camp-erin/

Hospice by the Bay
http://hospicebythebay.org/types-of-care/grief-support/by-the-bay-camp/

Hello Grief
hellogrief.org

Books:

A parent’s guide to raising grieving children (2009)

William J. Worden – Children & Grief: When a Parent Dies. (1996)

Donna Schuurman – Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent (2003)

James Emswiler, Maray All Emswiler – Guiding Your Child through Grief (2000)​​

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