By: Dipesh Navsaria, MPH, MSLIS, MD, FAAP
How your child reacts to your pet's death will depend on their age and developmental level. When children display emotions like sadness, it's important to validate them.
During my own childhood, I remember when a pet died, my well-meaning mother told me I shouldn't dwell on being sad. It's natural to want to protect your child from unpleasant emotions. But letting children experience them helps them build coping skills for the future.
Here's what you can do to help your child deal with the loss of a pet.
Explain your own sadness
If your emotion isn't obvious, this may confuse your child. It's okay to let them see you cry. Keep in mind though that not all children—whatever their age—express their grief through sadness. Anger is also a common way to express grief. Understanding this is important so you can help them learn to work through it.
Remember, grief-related emotions can come and go, sometimes without warning. It may take longer than you thought for your child to get through this period. Be sure to let your pediatrician know if your child is having more serious symptoms such as sleep disturbances, anxiety or depression.
Be prepared for questions
Children may ask about death and what happens after we die. While the specifics of your answer will depend on your family's beliefs, this is a sign that your child wants to talk about it. If they don't bring up questions, especially when you've given them opportunities, it's possible your child might not want to discuss it. Follow their lead.
Create some type of small memorial or ritual
This can really help your child with the process of saying goodbye after the loss of a pet. The
memorial could involve scattering ashes, creating a memorial collage or planting a tree in the pet's memory. Your child might find this uncomfortable, so try suggesting it gently and follow their wishes.
How to talk with your child about a pet's death: advice by age
What your child understands about death will depend on their age. Here's what you can expect, along with age-appropriate books to help your child understand and cope with losing your family's pet.
Toddlers have a difficult time understanding death. They might ask over and over where the pet is. They may even seem unconcerned by your pet's death. Don't be worried about this—they're not being insensitive or uncaring. At this stage, they simply don't understand the meaning of death.
Recommended reading for toddlers:
Something Very Sad Happened: A Toddler's Guide to Understanding Death by Bonnie Zucker
Bear Island by Matthew Cordell
Up in Heaven by Emma Chichester Clark
Like toddlers, younger preschoolers may have difficulty with the concept of death. Older preschoolers may start to have a deeper understanding.
Recommended reading for preschoolers:
Goodbye Mousie by Robie H. Harris
The Forever Dog by Bill Cochran
The Old Dog by Charlotte Zolotow
Goodbye, Brecken by David Lupton
Alfie and the Birthday Surprise by Shirley Hughes
The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr
At this age, kids are much more able to understand death. If your pet is going to die soon due to old age or illness, this is a good age to prepare your child ahead of time. (See "Parent FAQs about the loss of a family pet," below, for more information.)
Recommended reading for grade schoolers:
Love That Dog: A Novel by Sharon Creech
Grandmother Bryant's Pocket by Jacqueline Briggs Martin.
Kate, the Ghost Dog: Coping With the Death of a Pet by Wayne L. Wilson
Memories of You by Erainna Winnett
Jasper's Day by Marjorie Blain Parker
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst
Most teenagers are able to understand abstract concepts like death. Be prepared though—as with anything, their reaction to grief can span the range of human emotions.
Books on grief and loss for teens tend to be less focused on pets, but they often discuss death in general. Teens' different tastes in types of books—for instance, preferring fiction to nonfiction, or realism to fantasy—can make general reading recommendations challenging too.
Here are some recommendations for nonfiction books about grief. These might also help you understand how to best help your grieving teen.
Recommended reading for teens:
The Grieving Teen: A Guide for Teenagers and Their Friends by Helen Fitzgerald
Healing Your Grieving Heart for Teens by Alan D. Wolfelt
Saying Goodbye When You Don't Want To by Martha Bolton
Straight Talk About Death for Teenagers by Earl Grollman
FAQs about the loss of a pet
Our dog hasn't died yet, but is really old and sick. Should we start to prepare our children?
The way you talk about death before your pet actually dies can make a big difference. This is especially true when your child is old enough to start to understand what death means.
It might be tempting to hide how serious the situation is if your pet is terminally ill, or to tell your child that everything is fine. Instead, talk to your child in an age-appropriate way about what's going on. You can use one or more of the recommended books above. Tell your child you want your family to enjoy the time you have left with your pet. Answer questions. All this gives your child a chance to start to process their emotions and time to say goodbye. It also ensures that your pet's death won't be a huge shock.
Would getting a new puppy help my kids cope with our dog's death?
Getting a new pet is a big decision and it may help lessen your family's grief. That said, it's best to explain the new pet as a different adventure, rather than seeing it as a way to cope. For one thing, your kids may expect that a new pet will be exactly like the last one and be disappointed when they aren't. Kids may also get the wrong message that loved ones who have passed on are replaceable.
I think my child should see a child psychiatrist. Are there any that specialize in pet loss?
It's rare to find a psychiatrist (a medical doctor that specializes in mental health) or a psychologist (a non-medical doctor specialist in mental health) who focuses on pet loss. But most of these professionals will have training and expertise with children who are grieving. They can also tell when
a child's grief is beyond what's expected.
How do I know if my child's grief is something I should be concerned about?
There is no simple answer to this question. Pediatricians don't have a set timeframe for how long it might take a child to grieve. Some children take longer to move through their grief than others.
However, there are some signs that may indicate your child needs some extra help (though this isn't common). These signs include:
Persistent difficulty with daily functioning at home or school months after the pet's death
Preoccupation with thinking about the deceased pet
Substance use or other "acting out" behaviors
Deep, prolonged sadness or depression and/or suicidal behavior (NOTE: if you think your child is thinking about suicide,
988 right away. Crisis counselors are there 24/7 to link you with emergency services in your area. There is also the chat function at
988lifeline.org/chat and text.
What to remember after a family pet dies
The death of a pet is a difficult time for children. It's also an opportunity for growth and to develop coping skills that will help them throughout their lives.
It's important to resist your natural desire to protect your child from unpleasant emotions. Instead, focus on acknowledging their feelings of loss, sadness, and grief. If your child is old enough, show them healthy ways to manage their sadness or anger. You could suggest drawing, coloring, running, taking a warm bubble bath, listening to music or talking about happy memories of your pet.
Share your own feelings about the deceased pet, or from your own childhood experiences. This can help your child understand that adults have these emotions too, and that it's a natural part of life. You may want to also share what you do to cope with your difficult emotions.
About Dr. Navsaria
Dipesh Navsaria, MPH, MSLIS, MD, FAAP, is Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Early Childhood. He is a professor of Pediatrics and of Human Development & Family Studies at the School of Medicine & Public Health and the School of Human Ecology, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has practiced primary care pediatrics in a variety of settings and is the founding medical director of Reach Out and Read Wisconsin and was appointed by the White House to the National Museum and Library Services Board. Dr. Navsaria regularly writes op-eds on health-related topics; participates in radio and television interviews; hosts two podcasts, and frequently speaks locally, regionally, and nationally on early brain and child development, early literacy, and advocacy to a broad variety of audiences. Follow him on Twitter @navsaria, Facebook, and
visit his website.