How to Help Kids Cope With a Pet’s Death

I devoted a chapter on how to help kids cope with a pet’s death in my pet loss ebook. I interviewed pet loss experts, grief counselors, and veterinarians; here are a few of their tips for kids and pet loss.

“Grief is like the ocean; it comes in waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” ~ Vicki Harrison.

This is the most bewildering aspect of mourning: some days we’re fine, and other days we’re a puddle of tears! It’s normal for grief to come and go – and that’s something kids should know about pet loss.

If you’re not coping well with your pet’s death, read Letting Go of an Animal You Love: 75 Ways to Survive Pet Loss.

And, here are a few tips for helping kids cope with the death of the family dog, cat, or other animal…

Helping Kids Cope With Pet Loss

The following story was suggested by grief counselor Marty Tousley – it was based on a story she found in Bereavement Magazine, called “Throwing Away the Wrapper” by Bob Willis.

A mother was trying to explain to her young son Ben what had happened to his beloved dog Raisin after she died. As he was getting ready for bed one night, the boy asked his mother, “Where is Raisin now?”

When she explained to him that his dog had died, the boy asked again, “But where is Raisin now?”

Suddenly aware of how helpless she felt to explain, the mother answered,

“Raisin is in Heaven.”

With this little Ben seemed satisfied, and he quietly went to bed. Next day, when Ben went out in the backyard to visit Raisin’s grave, he saw the grave site covered with flowers. He looked up at his mother and asked, “Is this Heaven?”

Again Ben’s mother was at a loss to explain the difference between Raisin’s being in Heaven and visiting Raisin’s grave. That night, as she tucked her son in bed, she took a chocolate candy bar from her pocket, carefully removed the wrapper, broke off a chunk and handed it to her son. “Let’s talk about Raisin,” she said. “Tell me what good memories you have of Raisin.”

The boy’s eyes brightened as he told how he’d gone exploring by the river with Raisin, took her to bed with him every night, and played fetch and chase games with her in the backyard. As he shared each happy memory, he munched contentedly on the rest of the candy bar.

When he’d finished with the good memories of Raisin and the candy bar, his mother pulled him close and hugged him. “Honey,” she said, “your dog Raisin is a lot like this candy bar. You know the good, delicious, wonderful and enjoyable part of Raisin that you remember? That’s the part of Raisin that’s in Heaven.”

Then she held up the empty candy bar wrapper. “This is the part of Raisin that’s buried in the ground — just Raisin’s wrapper.” A beautiful, peaceful look came over the little boy’s face as he realized what his mother was saying.

5 Ways to Help Children Cope With a Pet’s Death

One of the most important things to remember about kids and pet loss is that different children at different ages are affected in different ways.

“There is no right or wrong way to approach this sensitive subject,” says Marty. “But it’s important that, when a pet death happens or is about to happen, we explain things as openly and honestly as we can, at the child’s level of understanding.”

Let your child say goodbye to his or her lost pet

“[Saying goodbye] allows the first step of the grieving process to begin,” writes Lorri Greene in Saying Good-Bye to the Pet You Love. “Ask her if she wants to see the body, and respect her wishes. Some children may want to, and others may not. Let it be up to the child.”

If the pet’s death was gruesome, explain that Fluffy wouldn’t want to be seen that way. Saying goodbye can take many forms: a pet memorial ceremony in the backyard, unscheduled but regular times to reminisce fondly, children’s books and stories, and asking the veterinarian questions about death and the pet’s body. If you plan a memorial service or celebration, discuss where the pet’s remains should be buried. Make an appropriate marker. Decorate the grave. Encourage your loved ones to express love and respect at the time of the final goodbye.

If you want to give your child a sympathy gift, you may find some good tips in Gifts for Pet Owners Who Are Grieving Dog or Cat Loss.

Avoid euphemisms for pet death

“Explain what ‘dead’ means – that the animal’s body stops working and won’t work anymore,” says Marty, who wrote Final Farewell: Preparing for & Mourning the Loss of Your Pet. “Explain that death is not the same as sleeping, and avoid the common phrase for euthanasia (‘put to sleep’) as it can trigger sleep problems or intense anxiety over surgery and anesthesia.”

It’s better to say the pet was (or will be) helped to die peacefully and without pain. Marty also suggests not saying that the pet has “passed away”, “left us” or “gone on.” Those phrases imply the pet is on a trip and will return, may leave children feeling rejected or abandoned, or may encourage them to go searching for the lost pet or hold out hope for its return.

Be honest with your kids about the sadness that pet loss brings

“You can share your uncertainties, as well as what you know or surmise about death, but honest questions deserve honest answers,” writes Gary Kowalski in Goodbye, Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet. “Speaking to children openly and without equivocation about the end of life can help them develop trust in the mystery that surrounds us all.” Marty adds that grief is normal and necessary, and it’s fine to be sad in front of children. Say, “This is how we feel when someone we love dies.” Also, stress that it’s the pet’s death (not something your children did or failed to do) that makes you sad. Say, “Mommy and Daddy are very sad because . . .”

Share your uncertainties about life after death

Show children your honest feelings about your pet’s passing – the good, the bad, and the ugly – so they’ll learn that emotions are valid and that it’s acceptable and healthy to mourn. “The ‘stiff upper lip’ false front sends kids the wrong message,” says Sid Korpi, author of Good Grief: Finding Peace After Pet Loss: Personal and Professional Insights on the Animal Lover’s Unique Grieving Process. “Instead, cry and express your sadness. They won’t view you as weak for crying over the loss; they’ll simply learn it’s safe for them to do so, too. Also, let them participate in planning a memorial service or ceremony. They can help you create a pet memorial headstone, plant a memorial tree, write a poem, or draw a picture to commemorate their pet.”

Visit online pet loss websites and blogs with your child

“Consider visiting online resources like to help you honor and remember your deceased pet,” says Sam Tharp, who lost her cat 15 years ago and still thinks of her regularly. “You can create a free tribute page, complete with photos and videos.  The site was designed with children in mind – it’s colorful and user-friendly – to help them remember their pets in a positive way.  There are also grief support forums where you share your loss with other pet owners that have experienced the death of a dog, cat or other animal ‘member of the family.’”

One of my most popular articles is When Your Dog Dies – Help Healing From Pet Owners Who Lost Dogs. Many kids shared their stories of pet loss there – and memorializing their pets with other pet lovers can be healing and helpful.

I welcome you and your child to share your memories of your pet in that article, or in the comments section below.

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7 thoughts on “How to Help Kids Cope With a Pet’s Death”

  1. My grandparent’s Yorkshire terrier Henry had to be put down today as he was 17 and had medical problems that couldn’t be cured. Anyway, as im a 13 year old, he was really like my Uncle and my grandads best friend, we are all so sad but we just tried to be happy as we could. Making jokes about the wee stains on the carpet and such the like. Anyway, we didn’t tell my little brother he was put down, we just said that he died at the vets .hope you all deal with your loses well,you’re all so brave and I respect you for it xxx

  2. This morning my dad took my leonberger, nick to get put down. He was my best friend the one I always talked to. We got him when I was 2 and he helped me get through the worst times. We took him to the vet a couple weeks ago and the vet said we had a couple months until the tumor on his spleen would burst and he would die, but then this weekend he couldn’t walk and stopped eating. When I said my last goodbye he didn’t even look up. I just wish I could have one more day with him.

  3. MY PRECIOUS MISSY passed away last night 12/18/11 and we just got the phone call from the vet hospital stating she did not make it though last night… oh my GOD, WHAT am i going to do?/ I am a STAY HOME MOM of 2 daughters 1 Cocker Spaniel and my 14 YEAR OLD FOREVER FRIEND MISSY my precious CAT who last THURS out of the BLUE LOST the use of her back legs and WE CRYING ALOT ?? took her TO THE VET WITHIN MINUTES and BYE THE TIME I GOT HER INTO OUR VET SHE WAS in GRAVE AND SERIOUS CONDITION and vet statees SHE THROW A BLOOD CLOT due to a heart condition( unknown) which went to her back legs and got stuck which is why is could not walk and her future was little to none.. but i told them I was not ready to let her go so they started with IV’s and Heparin medications and SHE SHOWED SOME improvement over the day and into the second day, oh wow i cannot talk about it anymore i thank everyone who shares here

  4. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Dear Jessie,

    I’m so sorry to hear about your little dog Muffin. I hope you find the right way to explain to your son about pet loss, saying good-bye, and remembering your dog with love and peace.

    In sympathy,

  5. Our little dog Muffin went missing a couple hours ago, and we finally found her in some nearby weeds. She’s had thin bowels for a while now, and she’s been throwing up all day. There’s nothing we can do now except make sure she doesn’t die alone.

    My son has known her his whole life. They’re buddies. He’s almost three, and I don’t know how to tell him or make him understand why she’s not there anymore.

    My brother took Muffin off to his room so she wouldn’t be alone. I said, “Bye, Muffin.” It breaks my heart so much…

  6. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Dear Thomas,

    Thanks for your thoughts on helping kids cope with pet loss. I hope your dog doesn’t die and that you don’t have to help your child cope with death for a long, long time!


  7. Thomas Retterbush

    For some people (particularly children and the elderly) loosing a pet is like loosing a child is for others. I wouldn’t begin to know what to tell my four year old if our dog died!