Saying goodbye to a beloved pet can be heartbreaking for all the family. But for children, losing a pet can be particularly hard.
The death of a pet may be their first experience of grief, and it can be a confusing time.
In this guide, child psychologist Professor Sam Wass from the University of East London shares some straightforward and practical advice to help parents and other caregivers support a child following the loss of a pet.
We've also created a children’s book to help families have a conversation and comfort each other following the loss of a pet, which we're giving to you for free.
How the death of a pet affects a child
Multiple factors influence how a child responds to the death of a pet, including the child’s age and previous experience of losing someone they love.
Although every child is different, common responses to losing a pet can include feelings of:
Younger children may struggle to understand what’s happened to their furry companion, especially if the death was sudden or unexpected.
Show your child you're also sad
Children are sensitive to how you're feeling – so you must be in the right mood before you talk to them about what’s happened.
But this doesn’t mean you need to always appear cheerful and upbeat.
It can help a child to understand how they’re feeling if they can see you’re feeling the same way, too.
Then, when they see you starting to recover from your grief as time goes on, this can help your child start the process of recovering from their grief.
Is it ok to cry in front of my child?
Some parents worry that crying in front of their child will upset them even more.
But rest assured, it’s ok to let them see you cry. Just try and avoid your emotions from getting out of control as this may frighten them.
If you do get emotional it’s best to acknowledge your feelings and reassure them that you’ll be ok in a moment.
Let them know they're not alone
It's important your child doesn't feel they’re the only one in the family who is mourning.
If you can show them that everyone who loved the pet is grieving together, this can help your child normalise how they’re feeling and give them strength to recover.
Discuss the good times and the bad
It’s helpful to talk together as a family about your pet – discussing the happy times that you've shared, as well as your shared feelings of grief and sadness at their loss.
Offer extra support
If your child had a close bond with their pet, they probably miss the precious snuggle time they once enjoyed with their furry friend.
Although there's no substitute in those early days following the loss, reassure them that you and the rest of the family have an unlimited number of cuddles to go around instead.
Moments of closeness have the added advantage of giving your child time to open up, and you as their caregiver will benefit from the extra cuddles too!
Talk about feelings
Let them feel all their feelings
Often, when we see our child sad, we can’t resist the urge to try and ‘snap them out of it’. We might start talking in a cheery voice, trying to distract them and convince them it’s not that bad after all.
But there’s growing evidence that suppressing negative emotions can have negative consequences.
Instead, it’s better to accept that your child is feeling sad following the loss of their pet. You as the caregiver can support your child by listening to them when they want to talk, providing reassurance that what they’re feeling is completely normal and that they might feel this way for a while.
Label the emotions
The death of a pet can bring up complex, difficult emotions, that a child might be experiencing for the first time.
You can help your child understand these emotions by sensitively describing to them what you believe they may be feeling.
When doing this it’s important to use non-judgemental words. For example, say ‘I can see that you’re feeling sad because…’ and not ‘you shouldn’t be feeling sad about this because…’
Attaching verbal labels to emotions can help a child understand what these new feelings are that they’re experiencing.
And, over time, this also helps children communicate how they’re feeling to other people — which is also an important part of learning how to cope with difficult experiences.
Explain death as a natural cycle
It’s not uncommon for a child to think that they’re somehow responsible for what’s happened to their pet.
One thing that can help with this is to emphasise that death is part of nature.
Try and remind your child that leaves fall off the trees in autumn and then regrow in the spring, that some animals are being born just as others are dying, and so on. This might help your child to recognise that death is a natural process and nobody’s fault.
Be open and honest
Being honest and direct when talking about death, as well as in your responses to their questions can help the child to gain a clear understanding of the concept and permanence of death.
It can be tempting for parents and caregivers to try and soften the blow by using ‘child-friendly’ phrases - such as telling them that the pet has ‘gone to sleep’.
But children tend to take things very literally. So, words and phrases you use with the good intention of trying to minimise their upset could cause further confusion and pain in the long run.
Treasure your memories
Dedicate some time with your child to think about how they want to remember their pet.
Writing and talking about the happy times they had with their pet encourages them to share their feelings and process what’s happened.
You could get them to create a memory box or scrapbook. Include things like drawings and photos of their pet, nose or paw print, and poems or stories.
There are plenty of ways to remember a pet, so offer your child a few suggestions and let them decide.
Help with closure
One thing that often helps families navigate through their grief and to offer some closure, is to perform a ritual to ‘say goodbye’ to their pet.
For example, by creating a special burial spot in the garden or scattering their ashes in the pet’s favourite place. Or by making something special like a photo album or collage to remember them by.
Let your child take charge
Children often struggle with feeling a loss of control following the death of a pet. So, the more they can feel in control of the mourning process, the better.
Encourage them to get involved in creating the ‘goodbye’ ritual, inputting their ideas, and deciding what they would like to happen.
Moving on without guilt
Children tend to swing quickly between grieving and getting on with life. They can be upset about their pet one minute and playing their favourite game the next.
It's ok not to feel sad forever
It’s important to tell your child that it’s perfectly natural to feel less and less sad as time goes by. Make sure they know this isn’t something they need to feel bad about and that their pet will always remain in their mind as a cherished memory.
How long does grieving the loss of a pet last?
Grief has no timeline and can’t be hurried. Rest assured that usually, when the child is ready to move on, they’ll find other things that bring them the same kind of joy and fun as their pet once did.
However, if your child isn’t bouncing back following a pet bereavement, seek further guidance on how to support a grieving child.
Children’s books for when a pet dies
Reading how other people felt in the same situation – even fictional – can be a big part of learning to understand and process our feelings of grief and sadness at the loss of a much-loved pet.
There are a variety of children’s books that deal with death, including:
- Goodbye Mog by Judith Kerr
- Frog and the Birdsong by Max Velthuijs
- No Matter What by Debi Gliori
- Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake
Free book download
We’ve worked with children’s author and illustrator John Kelly to create a children’s book that you can read together.
The book, called We Won't Forget Our Furry Friend, is designed to help children understand and cope with the loss of a pet, informed by insights from child psychologist Professor Sam Wass.
Pet insurance and death
Our pets mean the world to us and our children.
Although painful, the death of a pet can be an opportunity to help children learn how to handle difficult experiences. Feel free to come back to this guide if you need help and support following the loss of a family pet.
Remember, we include farewell cover as standard as part of our Premier insurance. This means we can help cover the costs of your pet being put to sleep by a vet – giving you one less thing to worry about during a particularly difficult and overwhelming time.