When the family pet dies

Filed under: Pets

orange catSitting there quietly mourning the passing of our family cat, who'd been put to sleep by a visiting vet an hour before, I knew that the hard part was not yet over. In a few minutes, my husband would pull up with our car full of happy kids, and we'd have to gently break the news to them that we'd lost a cherished pet. It was the first time either of them had lost someone they loved, and I definitely wasn't confident in how to handle what came next.

There is a lot of good information out there on the web (believe me, I've read them all in the last week) for parents who are dealing with the death of a family pet. In general, they advise the parents be as honest with their kids as possible and, even though it's terribly difficult, let their child go the natural process of grief. What this means is that trying to lessen their grief by telling them Fido "went to sleep" or "went away," will only confuse them and cause them more alarm. It also means, as tempting as it may be to take everyone's mind of things, it's usually not appropriate to run out and get a replacement pet right away.


We prepared ourselves by reading articles on sites like PetPlace, BeliefNet, and AACAP, which all have sound advice. In addition to what the experts on those sites have to say, I'll share what we learned during this difficult experience:
  • Be flexible. We thought that we'd spend the evening having a funeral and sharing memories, but it was clear by our kids' reactions that our plan would need to change. Instead, we said our goodbyes and went out to our favorite restaurant, then on to swim lessons. We held our funeral the next morning, after things had sunk in a little.
  • Don't expect kids to grieve the same way as adults. It took one of my kids two full days to cry for her cat, and in the time leading up to that, she was either forced-happy or whiny and clingy. Once she had her big "release," the healing finally seemed to start.
  • Plan a memorial. We painted a rock for the grave site, but if your animal can't be buried, you could also put together a small scrapbook or a memory box.
  • Be concrete. Even if you plan to use this time to teach your kids about the after-life, most experts recommend that you also help children understand the basic biology of death. Fido won't walk/bark/eat/feel/see anymore; his body has stopped working. This part seemed especially important to my younger child, who keeps asking, "Will she still be buried tomorrow too?"
  • If possible, visit your local library ahead of time. We liked the books The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, I Will Always Love You, and Let's Talk About When Your Pet Dies for our young children.
  • Everyone will need a little extra TLC during this time, even yourself. Losing a beloved pet is difficult enough, but helping your children grasp the situation can make it especially wrenching.
How did you help your child deal with the lost of their first pet?

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.