Mommy SOS | Explaining the Death of a Pet to a Child

I am calling out to all Scottsdale Moms Blog readers for your take on how to talk to your kids about the death of a family pet.

I have a loving, energetic and emotional almost-three-year-old who loved our beloved yellow laborador retriever. I need advice from those of who have delt with this difficult this situation, and specifically how you communicated the passing with your kids.

One of my problems is in the HOW. How do you tell a toddler about the death of a pet? What words to you use? Do you say they died or passed away? What does that conversation look like?

I started to talk to her about how Lacey (our nine-year-old Lab) was really sick and old and she went to a really fun place, where they make lots of bones for her to eat and she gets to run really fast in a big grassy field. This has been working but her curiousity and questions come more frequently as the days pass.

“Where did Lacey go?” “Lacey went to a fun place, no more sick?” “I miss Lacey!”

In what ways have you delt with this situation and communicated this to your kids? How do you manage the questions when they come up?

Also, my daughter has started saying she wants to go where Lacey is. Now what do I say? I want her to believe that the place is beautiful, amazing and not scary, but now she wants to go there.

I would love to hear what the Scottsdale Moms Blog readers what do or say in this situation. 

PS – I am totally open to advice from all faith backgrounds. I realize your answers will depend on your spirituality, as will mine. I am most interested in the actual language/words you’ve used to talk about death with a toddler or preschooler, and how you’ve fielded the follow-up questions. Thank you, moms!

About Jenn

Jenn Delekta is a working mom, a wife to the love of her life, Bob, whom she has been married to for 10 years and mom of a very vibrant 5 year old little girl, Allex. Jenn has a passion for life and works hard at making the little things perfect around her. She loves to cook, craft and travel when she can fit it in her busy schedule. Jenn is active on Twitter, Pinterest, and on her own blog DesertMommas, where she writes on parenthood, working Mom rants, crafts and recipes.

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10 Responses to Mommy SOS | Explaining the Death of a Pet to a Child

  1. Evy M. August 20, 2012 at 7:41 am #

    Hi Jenn! My mom’s dog died last year when my son was only 2. It was sad but I wanted to tell him so he would know why Sawyer wasn’t around anymore when he went to vist ( which is often). I told him that Sawyer died and went to be with Jesus. I wanted him to understand that Jesus is up in heaven and Sawyer is with Him and that’s why we can’t see Sawyer anymore. He was a little sad but he was ok after a little bit.

    • Jenn August 20, 2012 at 4:43 pm #

      Our children can be so resilient, we are lucky for that! Thank you.

  2. Courtney G August 20, 2012 at 1:00 pm #

    I was babysitting a 3 year old full time when their family dog passed away. Her parents are spiritual, but not religious. I’m not sure how they explained Misha’s death to her. When she asked me about her dog, I told her that Misha was very sick, that she passed away, and is now in doggie heaven where she is healthy and can play all the time. She did ask periodically where Misha was and that she missed her, but eventually, she stopped asking about Misha. It’s tough for the first few days to a week, but I think they just accept it and move on.

    • Jenn August 20, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

      Thank you Courtney. It is good to hear they have acceptance at such a young age.

  3. Julie C.F. August 20, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    Hi Jenn,

    So sorry to hear of your dog’s passing. It’s already difficult to get through as adults, and explaining this to our young kids is indeed a struggle!

    My son is now 7. When he was about 3, my parents eight-year-old golden retriever, Dusty, passed away suddenly. It was extremely difficult to talk to my son about at first, for me, my parents, and my brothers, as we were all hurting so bad, and when my son asked, it’d get us teared up! I did a search for books on amazon and bought both of the following:

    http://www.amazon.com/Dog-Heaven-Cynthia-Rylant/dp/0590417010/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1345493078&sr=8-1&keywords=dog+heaven

    http://www.amazon.com/When-Pet-Dies-Fred-Rogers/dp/0698116666/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1345493102&sr=1-1&keywords=when+a+pet+dies

    I would recommend “Dog Heaven” over “When A Pet Dies,” especially for younger children, as it paints a beautiful image of where our beloved Dusty Dog has moved on to – both verbally and visually. It explains that we will meet them there again someday and the tone throughout the book is positive and comforting. “When A Pet Dies,” however, goes into the burial process and made me quite uncomfortable – it all depends what kind of explanation you want to give to your child. I say I prefer “Dog Heaven” because I read both to my son, and soon thereafter he became quite fixated on the whole death process, innocently saying, “Mommy, when Lulu (our own American Eskimo dog) dies, I will get the shovel and help you dig for her.” Although this may be something you’re okay with your child understanding at a certain age, that made the loss much more dark and I think children need to be focused on the positive memories and with “Dog Heaven” they are able to understand the loss and don’t need to go into the more morbid details. I had a hard time getting through the book without getting emotional, but it truly is a sweet book and I am very glad that I had it as a resource to help explain such a difficult time in our lives.

    • Jenn August 20, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

      Thank you for the book suggestions. I did buy the book “Dog Heaven” and I really like it. We only have read it a few times because she isn’t into the book very much but I like the topics of discussion in there. I love how they talk about making doggie milk bones and playing in the grass, I have using that in our conversations. And you are right, it is more centered around the positive side of death rather that the whole death process. Great advice. Thank you.

  4. Karis August 20, 2012 at 2:16 pm #

    So sorry to hear about your pet. I have had to make the tough decision to put a dog down and it never gets easier. I think you are doing a great job talking to your daughter about it, but wanted to make a few suggestions based on my experience. I have a 10 year old and an 8 year old daughter, and we have lost many pets over the years…a dog, many fish, hermit crabs, parakeets and chickens. The first suggestion is that it is always sad and that its ok to grieve. Even for pets that we don’t have the kind of emotional bond with that we do with our dog, we feel sadness and loss. It’s ok to feel sadness over the death of a pet, and its ok to allow your child to see you be sad. Your daughter may or may not also cry. She is still very young and is going to process all this different then you and different then an older child would. Learning to grieve our pets is a valuable training process that helps our kids process the inevitable loss of family members and friends.

    Second, since you asked specifically about wording, I think its important that you explain that the dog died. Physical death is a part of life, and its an inevitability. Telling your child that the “dog’s body died” because it was very sick and old and it wasn’t working any more will help her process better because it is factual and concrete. How you explain what happens to the dog’s spirit it up to you, but there is no debating that the dogs body is dead.

    I am a Christian, and I (Christians in general) believe that people were created by God with both body and spirit. I think it is what makes us unique as humans and “made in God’s image” as the bible says. Because of this I believe that even though all humans eventually experience a physical death of their body, their soul continues to live. On the other hand, the bible does not say that animals are created in the image of God. It says He created them, but not that they are made in His image (body and spirit.) Its for this reason that I do not believe that animals have “souls” that continue to live after they are gone. When we deal with an animal dying in our house, this has been part of our dialouge. Of course, this is my personal belief that is informed by my faith. As my children have grown, at an age appropriate time, we have discussed this.

    A last thought is that we do have little “funeral” services for our animals when they die. It’s helpful in the greiving process to have a concrete time of remembering that pet. These are short and don’t involve a lot of hoopla, but we usually take time to pray and thank God for entrusting that animal to our care and for the wonderful friend that animal was to our family. We thank God for the memories that we made with that pet.

    Hope some of this helps!

    • Jenn August 20, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

      This helps out a lot, thank you. You know I haven’t even thought about a “service” yet. It just never came to mind yet. That is a beautiful suggestion to have some kind of event in her memory. I heard of planting a tree in their name or something like that. I am going to start thinking of hwo to do this, thank you. Thank you for sharing your belief system. Amazing and beautiful words of wisdom.

  5. Phil Kuhn November 25, 2012 at 9:49 am #

    MyGardenCross.Com designs and builds garden and memorial crosses for private use to honor your loved ones that have passed. We have our signature pictured memorial crosses where a picture is worth a thousand words.Crosses that are unique as your loved one. We also recently added a pet cross because our kitty died Crimson. We still have his sister Clover. But my 5 year old misses Crimson. So we added a pet cross with our signature picture you can put in it. Tell everyone pets are part of the family with their unconditional love.

  6. SereniCare September 17, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

    I think that the best way to describe death to an infant is to speak about it like it’s a good thing … that the pet is moving on to a better place. No matter what kind of belief system you come from, the idea that after this life there is something that is possibly better than this life is a comforting thought.

    That’s why I would say that “passed on” is the best way possible.

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