Pet loss might be your child’s first experience of losing a loved one. It is likely to be upsetting and confusing for them, but if handled sensitively, a child’s experience of pet loss can help them to build positive strategies for coping with loss in later life.
Whether you’re worried about telling your child their cat has died, or want to talk to them about grief, our advice should make the process easier.
For many years it was believed that children don’t grieve at all, or don’t grieve with the same intensity as adults. This isn’t true. Children may show their grief differently than most adults but it shouldn’t be assumed that children have resilience to loss.
The way that children view death often depends on their age, but as children mature as individual rates this should be seen only as a guide.
Most parents having been through the loss of a pet have reported that honesty was the best policy for them with their children. ‘White lies’ may seem a good idea but often cause confusion and parents who have made white lies in an effort to protect the child from pain have often expressed their regret at doing so and had wished they had been more honest – even though it might have been more difficult at the time.
For children of all ages, grief may be delayed and might surface days or weeks after the loss has occurred. This can be the result of busy schedules, peer pressure or emotional inhibitions. It is common for children (and many adults) to worry about the dead pet being lonely or cold in their grave. This is a normal reaction and it may be useful to offer reassurance that when someone has died they are not able to feel lonely, cold, wet, hungry, thirsty or frightened.
It is essential that a child never feels they are totally responsible for making their decision to have their pet euthanased (even if the pet was ‘theirs.’) An adult ultimately must have the personal responsibility for the death of the pet by euthanasia, never a child. However, if they want to be involved in the decision, this can be helpful, as can being involved in the end of life care of the pet.
Talk about euthanasia in advance if possible. Providing a careful explanation of what happens in the euthanasia process may be helpful. Give honest but sensitive answers to their questions.
Setting up a memorial can be useful for anyone losing a pet, but for children it can have a lasting impact upon their experience of loss and grief as they grow into adults. There are lots of ways to memorialise a pet including:
If you're experiencing the loss of a pet or want to talk about telling your child about your pet's death, you can talk to us.
Our volunteer listeners can provide you with emotional support and practical information at this difficult time.