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What to Say When a Pet Dies

Explaining the death of a pet to children
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WebMD Feature

When a pet dies, it's common for people to feel as though they've lost a member of the family. For children, this is often their first encounter with death. In an attempt to soften the blow, parents sometimes explain the death of a pet in vague ways or skirt the topic altogether. But experts say this just makes things worse by leaving children anxious and mystified.

Explaining a pet's death to children in a clear, respectful manner can go a long way toward making the journey a little less distressful, and at the same time enhance your connection with your child. Here are some of the most common questions parents ask about what to tell their children when a pet dies.

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When a pet dies, what do children think and believe?

Young children aren't developmentally ready to understand death in the same way adults do. As their understanding deepens over time, the lens through which they view death changes too. From ages 3 to 5, children tend to view death as temporary and reversible. They may believe you can bring a pet back to life by taking it to the doctor for a shot. Magical thinking also may prompt your 4-year-old to believe he somehow caused the pet's death when he wished for a playful puppy to replace an elderly dog with bad breath and health problems.

From ages 6 to 8, children usually know death is irreversible but believe it only happens to others. They understand the concept but may not be able to accept that a death is happening to them. From ages 9 to 11, children come to understand that death is inevitable, even for them. However, children in these age ranges may still feel somewhat responsible for the pet's death, thinking their beloved pet may not have died if only they'd taken her for more dog walks or kept the water bowl full.

Of course, each child is unique, says Abigail McNamee, PhD, EdD, chair of the Department of Early Childhood and Childhood Education at City University of New York. McNamee says parents should consider the following questions: "How many experiences has your child had with death? How have you talked with him or her about death? What's been seen on television?" McNamee tells WebMD that all these things will influence your child's ability to understand and accept a pet's death.

Our cat was just run over by a car. What should I tell my children?

When a pet dies, be honest, accurate, and brief, advises McNamee. Parents tend to use euphemisms such as "passed away" or "went to sleep" to describe death. For a young child, words like these may end up creating confusion or even extreme fear about going to bed at night, McNamee says.

"Don't feel as though you have to give them a lot of information," says McNamee. "Tell them what happened, then see what comes from them, such as their feelings and ideas about how to handle the death."

Kimberly A. Cardeccia, MA, LPC, NCC, author of Healing Your Heart When Your Animal Friend is Gone: A Children's Pet Bereavement Workbook, says it is best to tell your children about the death right away. Then allow your children to ask questions. "Recognize that if they ask for details, they're asking for comfort," she says. "Spare them any details that would traumatize them or create a horrible picture in their minds. Make it sound as peaceful as you can."

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