The death of a family pet can trigger grief in a child that’s as intense as if they lost a close human family member. Though parents might be tempted to come up with creative explanations about an animal’s passing to spare their child pain, experts say it’s normal, healthy, and expected for kids to be sad over the loss of their pet—and that this grief should be allowed and even encouraged.

“A beloved pet is a kid’s best friend,” says Wallace Sife, a New York-based psychologist, author of The Loss of a Pet, and founder of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement. “The child loves the pet, and when the pet dies it is a real loss for the child.”

A pet’s death is often a child’s first close encounter with death. “How the parents handle it will affect them the rest of their lives,” Sife says.

Sife encourages parents to talk with their child about the pet’s death in language the child can understand, encourage her to express her feelings, and let her know that it’s okay to be sad

Fabricating a story that the animal went to “live on a farm” or is taking a long nap can actually fill a child with fear, Sife cautions. “They might think they’ll be sent away to live on a farm,” he says.

Opportunity to Foster Compassion, Empathy

Jeanne Segal, a California-based psychologist and writer, encourages parents to think of a pet’s death as an opportunity to model compassion and comfort. “Comfort isn’t what people say,” Segal says, explaining that for the bereaved, “It’s [more] about ‘Does this person really understand what I feel?’” Segal operates helpguide.org, where she offers detailed information about discussing pet death with children. “When someone seems to understand us, we feel comforted.”

7 Ways Parents Can Help a Child Through the Grief Process

1. Do not trivialize the death of a pet. Children need time and opportunity to mourn. They need their parents to validate their feelings and understand how much they miss their pet, and they may need to miss a day of school or a soccer game. “Grief is appropriate,” Segal says. “It’s how we heal from losses. Your child’s grief is an indicator that your child has learned to love.”

2. Suggest different ways to remember the pet. Your child may want to draw pictures of the pet, make a scrapbook, or create a memory box. She may want to have some sort of memorial service. She may want to place photos and mementos in a special place. Planting a tree in memory of a pet can also be comforting, Sife says.

3. Let the child’s caregivers know about the death. Inform your child’s teacher, babysitter, piano teacher, and coach. Let anyone know who might otherwise be confused by your child’s sadness. Ask teachers if anything is coming up in the curriculum that might warrant preparation—for example, will your child be studying a novel that features a pet or a death?

4. Don’t rush to replace the pet. It’s tempting to rush out and get a new dog or cat. Your child may even ask to get a new pet right away. But explain that the family needs time to mourn the loss of the pet that died.

5. Read age-appropriate children’s books that deal with pet death. There are many options, including the classic Dog Heaven, by Cynthia Rylant; the tender and touching Murphy and Kate by Ellen Howard; and I’ll Always Love You, by Hans Wilhelm.

6. Let your child know it’s okay to talk about death and about the pet. If the mention of death makes you upset, your child may avoid the topic and hold his feelings in. Let your child know death is a part of life and that it’s okay to talk about it. Let him know he can talk about his beloved pet, and share your favorite happy memories of the pet with him.

7. Seek outside help if your child has a hard time coping. If your child is already dealing with stress such as divorce, a parent’s illness, difficulties at school, or a conflict with a close friend or sibling, the death of a pet can bring on a crisis, Sife says. A counselor, psychologist, or therapist may be able to help.

The stress of losing a pet and seeing your child so upset might make you wonder if a pet is worth the inevitable grief. But the process of grieving strengthens families, Segal says. “When something happens and we get through it, trust is built,” she says. “We shouldn’t take away the pain in life...the more your child feels, the better life will be. The more we feel, the more meaning we find in life.”

Dealing With a Pet’s Death for Kids of Different Ages

Children respond to death differently depending on their age. Here are some general ways children of different ages may react to a pet’s death, according to Wallace Sife, author of The Loss of a Pet and founder of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement.

  • Ages 2-3: At this age, children do not have the life experiences to give them an understanding of death. They should be told that the pet has died and will not return. Reassure your child that he did not do or say anything to cause the pet’s death. Maintain usual routines, and most young children will accept the loss without a lot of emotion.
  • Ages 4-6: Children have some understanding of death but may not comprehend the permanence of it. They may even think the pet is asleep or is continuing to eat, breathe, and play somewhere. Frequent, brief discussions about the pet’s death will allow your child to express her feelings and ask questions.
  • Ages 7-9: At this age, children know death is irreversible. They might not be afraid that they will die, but they may worry about the death of their parents. Your child may ask questions that seem morbid, which parents should answer with honesty. Their grief may manifest itself in misbehavior or antisocial behavior at school.
  • Ages 10-12: Children understand that death is natural, inevitable, and happens to all living things. They look to their parents as role models in how to react to death. At this age, children may cry a lot and need lots of comforting.
  • Teenagers: Children of this age group may show anything from an apparent total lack of concern to excessively emotional reactions. One day they want to be treated like an adult, and the next day they need to be reassured like a young child. If friends are supportive, it is much easier for them to deal with a loss.
  • Young adults: The loss of a pet for this age group can be particularly hard. Young adults may have feelings of guilt for abandoning their pets when leaving home for college, work, or marriage, and may be unable to return to the family home to say goodbye to the pet. Again, supportive friends and coworkers may help, as will allowing the individual to discuss and remember the pet with family members.
Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.