Wording is often a real challenge. Here are some prompts that may help you plan what to say to your children and/or children in your life. Remember that there are rarely “the right words” and that planning ahead, though difficult, may help you feel more prepared to discuss pet loss.
On explaining death:
- “His/her body stopped working” or “his/her heart stopped working” and that means that he/she is dead and won’t ever wake up.
- For very young children: When a pet dies it means they stop moving, they don’t see or hear us, they don’t wake up again.
On talking about euthanasia:.
- The doctors/vets have done everything that they can
- Our pet would never get better
- This is the kindest, most loving way to help our pet and take away their pain
- Our pet will/has die(d) peacefully and they aren’t scared or feeling hurt
- The doctor will give our pet a shot to put them to sleep and they’ll feel safe and won’t be scared and then their heart will stop beating and they won’t be alive any more.
- We sometimes have to put our pets to sleep but we never, ever put children to sleep.
- Be careful about terms and only use “go to sleep” in this sense to explain actually going to sleep. Unclear terms are confusing and scary for children
On why death happens:
- Death happens to all living things.
- Usually for people not until we are very, very old.
- There are some things we control and some we don’t and death is one we don’t control.
- Nobody is to blame.
Remember when talking to children wording is really important. Do not use euphemisms — they are confusing and while they are often a gentler way to say things they are scary and unclear to children. For example, saying that you are putting your pet to sleep may cause children to think that your pet will on day wake up. Telling them your pet went to heaven may prompt them to ask why you can’t go get them and bring them home. A good rule of thumb is keeping it caring, simple, and concrete as in the examples above.
There are very few wrong things to do when talking to children – being caring, and keeping it simple and concrete will be really helpful. It is important to keep in mind that you know your child, or children you are close to, best – consider their age, personality, history, and your own reactions before you begin a conversation with them.
- Let them know it’s ok to cry, or feel sadShow and share your own emotions
- Use simple language and avoid euphemisms (they can be scary)
- Know how you want to express your beliefs and knowledge about death and afterlife and be ok with saying you don’t know for sure
- Talk to your children/youth you care about
- Consider a trip to the library
- Let them lead the conversation
- Call in support if you can
- Let folks know (day care, school, friend’s parents, bus driver)
- Give children time to grieve
As children move along in the grief process,
- Be patient while maintaining boundaries
- Be encouraging – smile, hold hands, talk
- Give choices
- Stick together
- Give permission to be happy, enjoy things, take a break from feeling sad
- Protect their feelings by totally shielding them – Youth don’t need protection as much as they need to understand what is happening and know that you are there for them
- Hide your grief
- Minimize feelings
Ideas for honoring pets who have passed:
- Share photos
- Make a scrapbook
- Create memory pages
- Hold a memorial: funeral, shrine, momentos
- Create a visible reminder of your pet (jewelry, picture, comfort object)
- Hold a living memorial
- Make a donation or raise donations in your pet’s name to help other animals
- Volunteer to help other pets – long-term
- Do a candle lighting/ celebration on birthdays/anniversaries
- Talk with folks who knew your pet — tell stories
Children’s books on pet loss:
- Saying Goodbye to Lulu – Corinne Demas (Grades K-3)
- I’ll Always Love You – Hans Wilhelm (Grades K-3)
- The Tenth Good Thing About Barney – Judith Viorst (Grades K-3)
- Dog Heaven – Cynthia Rylant (Grades K-3)
- Cat Heaven – Cynthia Rylant (Grades K-3)
- The Legend of the Rainbow Bridge – William N. Britton (Grades 3-6)
- For Every Cat An Angel – Christine Davis (Grades 3-6)
- Cold Noses at the Pearly Gates: A Book of Hope for Those Who Have Lost a Pet – Gary Kurz (Grades 9-adult)
Special thanks to Colleen O’Brien, LMSW of Blue Dog Counseling for this helpful information.
For more information, see the National Association of School Psychologists’ website on grieving and loss.