Dogs are family members, and children quickly bond with the family dog. Their pets have been around for some kids since the day (or before) they were born. They’ve played with the dog and helped care for them for years. When the family dog dies, the impact is often significant. So much so that one study found that children described the day they lost their pet as the worst day of their lives, even several years after the death occurred.
In many cases, losing a family pet is the first time a child experiences death or thinks about what death means. Therefore, it is not surprising that parents are often anxious about how to talk to their kids about the death of a beloved pet. However, it’s important to remember that your children don’t need you to do things perfectly; you need to try your best.
With the tips we’ll share here, you’ll be better prepared for the initial conversation and others that may follow. Memorials such as photos, decorative urns, or a pet memorial bracelet can help to promote healing. Let’s start at the beginning: breaking the news of the pet’s death.
Be honest with your kids after the family dog dies
You need to be honest with your children from the beginning, even if it may be difficult. If they sense that you are less than truthful, they may think it’s wrong to speak about death. They may also feel uncomfortable displaying their emotions.
Each child will have a different reaction, and a lot depends on their age and stage of development. Children often have no idea how to process feelings of grief. Therefore, it may take hours or days before they appear angry or sad. Your role is to be patient and allow them to feel whatever they’re feeling.
Answer questions as best you can
Kids tend to have lots of questions, especially if the pet died suddenly and couldn’t prepare themselves. They may want to blame someone, such as the vet, for the dog’s death, but you should avoid telling them it was the fault of someone in particular. This may lead to further confusion or cause them not to trust veterinarians or doctors in general. Some of the most common questions that children have include:
- Why did the dog die?
- Where are they now?
- Will I ever see them again?
- Will my other pets die?
You’ll have to decide how detailed you want to be about what happened to the family dog. It’s generally a good idea to leave out anything that recounts any pain the animal felt in its last days. Instead, stress that the animal is no longer in pain or suffering.
Since this may be your child’s first experience with grief, they may not know what’s normal and what’s not. Keep in mind that there’s no right or wrong way to heal, and make sure you let them know this. Communicate that you’re also dealing with difficult emotions, and you can work through the process together. If they want to play, rest, or color (for example) to help themselves feel better, encourage them to do so, especially since the grieving process is different for everyone, and there is no right way to cope with grief.
Supply helpful resources to help cope after the family dog dies
You and the other adults in the family probably won’t have all the answers. Fortunately, numerous resources help navigate the family dog’s death. You’ll find books, movies, and even podcasts designed to help children deal with the loss of a pet. Hearing from professionals or connecting with a fictional character can help the child to feel less alone. They’ll gradually realize that everyone loses a member of their family at some point. Research shows that losing a pet can trigger mental health challenges in children, so don’t be afraid to contact a mental health professional for more targeted help.
Let the kids help honor your dog
An essential part of the grieving process is deciding how to commemorate the animal’s life. Adults should decide whether to cremate or bury, let children provide suggestions for what happens next. Explain that even though you’re sad about losing the dog, you’re still allowed to celebrate the time you had with the animal. There are many ways to pay tribute to a family dog.
Draw a picture
Younger children can have a tough time putting their feelings into words. However, they may find it easier to draw or paint a picture of the dog or a special place they shared with the pet. You can then frame it and hang it in a location of choice as a special way for your child to honor and remember the pet.
Organize a memorial event
Whether you opt for burial or cremation, you can hold a memorial event. Going through a ritual can be helpful for everyone in the family. You can hold the event in your backyard or a park you frequented with the pet. Taking a quiet moment to talk about the dog’s life and how much you loved them can be soothing. So too, can saying a prayer if you’re a faith-based family. You can erect a headstone or another marker as a lasting tribute if you bury the dog.
Get personalized pet memorial bracelets
Some families opt for custom urns when they cremate their pets. However, you can also place a small portion of the dog’s ashes in a pet memorial bracelet. This allows the child to have the dog with them in some way all the time. If other family members want a memento, you can also get a women’s or men’s pet memorial bracelet.
Plant a seed or plant in your dog’s honor
The death of a beloved pet can leave a child feeling helpless. Planting a tree or flowers can help them to refocus on life. If possible, you can plant the tree in the animal’s favorite spot or simply in a prominent place in the backyard. Speaking or thinking about the dog every time you pass the plant can assist with healing.
Final thoughts on when the family dog dies
For children, pets are similar to siblings. Therefore, you need to be sensitive to their feelings when the family dog dies. Provide them with age-appropriate details and allow them to participate as much as possible in everything that happens. Together, you can process the animal’s death and keep their memory alive.
Richard Thomas has been a freelance writer for animal and pet care for more than a decade. He also is a volunteer dedicated to animal rescue and welfare, working for different organizations. He lives with two adopted cats and a rescue dog.