How to help a child who is grieving the loss of a pet

If you’ve recently lost a pet, I am so, so sorry for your loss.

Over the years I’ve known a lot of dogs, and of course I’ve watched many grow up, grow old or pass away.

While I’m by no means an expert on grieving, I have suffered death – both human and canine.

Here are some ideas may be helpful for you and your own child when dealing with the loss of a dog or a cat.

1. Be up front and honest with the child.

Children pick up on more than parents realize. Sometimes parents attempt to protect their children by hiding the truth about a dog’s terminal illness for as long as possible. The child probably already knows something is wrong, and parents need to accept that children are going to feel emotional pain. They have to grieve just like everyone else, and that is OK.

2. Explain confusing terms like ‘putting the dog to sleep.’

One of the saddest things I ever heard was when a 5-year-old literally thought his parents were taking his dog to the vet to be “put to sleep” for a nap. He did not understand what “put to sleep” meant because no one had told him. When he later asked when his dog would be coming back, the shock of loss was extra difficult for the child and – I’m sure – the parents.

3. Plan a ‘perfect day’ for the dog and child.

If possible, give the child a full morning or afternoon to spend with the dog doing all their favorite things together such as:

  • A walk
  • Playing in the yard
  • Giving the dog her favorite treats
  • Playing with a toy
  • Watching a movie or reading together
  • Cuddling up with a blanket
  • Lots of hugs, kisses and petting

Make sure to take pictures for both you and your child. The child may want to print out and frame or hang the pictures in his room later on. Here’s an example of a perfect day for a dog I planned for my foster dog Dora.

4. Art.

Encourage the child to draw a picture of the dog or to make a sculpture, paint or write in a journal. The child may want to create the art to give to the actual dog. Or, the child may want to keep the art for himself. Either way is fine. This could be done before the dog passes away as well as afterwards.

5. Comfort, or course.

This goes without saying, but hold and hug the child. I also believe (and I’m no counselor) that it’s OK if the child sees Mommy or Daddy cry. This shows the child that it’s OK and normal to express these feelings and that even adults feel sadness and pain. Don’t feel like you have to hide your own emotions all the time.

6. Talk about the dog.

Encourage the child to talk about the dog and to share favorite memories. If you believe in some sort of afterlife for pets such as the rainbow bridge concept, this would be a good time to talk about that. Encourage the child to share her own feelings about doggy heaven, but don’t get upset if her beliefs are different than your own.

7. Remember everyone grieves differently.

The child may appear to move on from the loss more quickly than you. Or, the child might end up grieving longer. Either way is OK. The child may also be hiding his feelings. Remember that just because someone is not showing feelings on the outside does not mean he is not feeling anything. Feelings of grief may also seem to resurface randomly such as while watching a movie with a dog in it or after seeing another dog at a friend’s house. I think we can all relate to that.

8. Talk openly about getting a new dog or puppy.

If you plan to get another dog, include the child in the conversation. Explain that the new dog is not a replacement for the previous dog but that there are many other dogs out there who need good homes. If you plan to adopt a dog, use the opportunity to explain to the child about helping an animal in need. If you plan to get a dog from a breeder, use it as an opportunity to talk about raising puppies responsibly.