5 tips that will help you learn how to help a child deal with pet death, plus one helpful children’s book on pet loss.
My heart sank when I walked into the room and saw the fish floating at the top of the tank.
After rushing the tank out of the room, I gently shook my boys awake.
“I have some sad news for you, sweeties. Fishy died last night.”
My normally-stoic 7 year old flipped onto his belly and began to bawl. I climbed up into the top bunk and lay beside him, letting his hot tears fall into my hands.
He had bought the little beta fish with his own money. His favorite pastime was to watch the colourful little guy swoop and swirl in the water. And now his little friend was floating belly up, eyes glazed over.
The death of a pet fish can seem very inconsequential to an adult, but to a child who’s never experienced loss before, it can be heartbreaking. He knew death existed of course; we have had multiple conversations about my sister who died as a teen. But it didn’t become real until the moment he lost his sweet fish.
I’ve thought about loss a lot as I have learned to process grief for my sister.
While pet loss doesn’t seem quite the same as human loss, it can still be traumatizing for a child. Grief and loss are part of our broken and hurting world, and learning to grieve in a healthy way is important for long-term mental health.
How to help a child deal with pet death
1. Be honest
Don’t concoct a lie for your kids, or try to replace the animal before the child notices. That’s great for TV, but not great for real life. Kids will eventually learn that bad things happen – I think it’s best for them to learn to cope with sadness and disappointment when you’re around to comfort them, rather than on their own as an adult.
Teaching your child to grieve well is one of the best gifts you can give them. Don’t hide from it. Embrace it as a crucial step in their life’s journey.
As well, don’t beat around the bush with your kids by saying things like “he went to sleep”. That’s a very common euphemism for death, but it can easily scare a child into fearing sleep!
What to say when a pet dies:
DO tell your child what happened in an age-appropriate way. Saying something like “Rover was very sick and he died. We won’t see him anymore.” is perfectly fine. (There’s a really great explanation of physical death in this kids book.)
In our case, our fish had stopped visibly eating for over a week, so we thought something might be wrong with him. I simply told the boys that he was sick, so he died.
2. Let them grieve at their own rate
Don’t rush out to buy a new pet the minute the current one has passed away. There will be some kids who move on very quickly, like my 5 year old who begged for a new fish 10 minutes after learning about Fishy’s death. However, my bigger boy wasn’t ready for a long time, and still isn’t ready. He needed space to grieve at his own rate.
This applies to people too. A relative of mine passed away at a young age, and people often asked her father why he hadn’t moved on after a year. My dad told me this a couple years after my sister passed away, and he said he now understood. You don’t move on from death. You might move forward, but you never get over it. Grief stays with you, and for some people, it stays longer than for others.
This book is really great for understanding the various feelings associated with losing a pet.
3. Memorialize the pet
When my boys got home from school on the day of the fish’s passing, I offered my son the choice to either flush Fishy down the toilet or bury him in the garden. He chose to bury the fish, so we hosted a little service in his chosen corner of the garden.
We tucked the fish in a little container and put it in the ground. Then each person took a turn sharing something they loved about Fishy.
At the end, my son scooped damp soil over the container, watering it with a few more tears. He inscribed a rock and placed it over top.
You might not have the ability to bury your pet, but you can conduct a memorial service like we did. You never know what is going on inside your child’s heart, and what aspect of the grief process will be the most meaningful. Later that evening I had this brief, heart-trending conversation with my boy:
“Did you notice where I buried him, Mommy?”
I shook my head.
“Beside the bleeding heart.”
This incredibly gorgeous picture book without words does a lovely job of showing the power of a memorial for a pet.
4. Remember together
Remembering together is something I wish we had done more of as a family when my sister passed away, but instead we bottled it up and talking about her became very awkward. I’m determined to change the way we talk about death in my family.
Here are some ways you can remember your pet together:
- Go to the pet’s favorite place (like a dog park)
- Post pictures in your home
- Tell stories about the pet at dinnertime
This sweet story does a great job of showing kids how and why to memorialize someone you’ve lost.
5. Remind your child that death wasn’t part of God’s good plan
If you’re a person of faith, you will know that death wasn’t part of God’s original plan for humans. It arrived in the world with brokenness and sin. The wonderful part of this story is that God has a plan to fix death forever.
The day of Fishy’s death, I read some of Revelation 21 with my kids, reminding them that someday, death will be forever defeated.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’[b] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”Revelation 21:3-4 NIV
Death is not the end. And that’s something we can rejoice about.
RELATED: Nab my free resource: NAVIGATE: Navigating loss and grief with children
A helpful “Loss of pet” Children’s book
All the books I previously recommended are great, general market books. But if you’re looking for a book that helps your child process loss from the Christian perspective, try Quinn Says Goodbye.
In the book, Quinn says goodbye to her pet, a firefly named Blink. Her mama reminds her that it’s ok to cry, because something bad things happen. But she also reminds her that although God doesn’t always stop the bad things from happening, he does promise to be with us through the pain.
Grab a copy of Quinn Says Goodbye from your favorite book retailer, or here from Amazon.
For more children’s books about dealing with pet death, check out this list from Feminist Books for Kids.