For many kids, the death of a pet is their first experience with loss. Children may have a difficult time understanding the end of life process and what is actually happening to their best friend. A child’s ability to understand death and grieving will depend on age and previous experiences.
Here are some generalizations about kids’ understanding of death
2 - 3 years: These kids don’t know what death is, but they may react to emotions expressed by others around them.
4 - 5 years: These kids have some knowledge about death, but may not understand its permanence. They may wonder if the pet is alive somewhere else and will come back. They may also wonder if something they did caused the pet to die. There may be somatic manifestations of grief (changes in toileting, playing, eating and sleeping).
6 - 8: These kids understand death and know that it’s permanent. Usually they do not fear their own death, but may fear the death of people in their lives. These kids may have questions that seem morbid to adults. They may have somatic (changes in toileting, playing, eating and sleeping), emotional (withdrawal or clinging), or behavioral (“acting out”) manifestations of grief. Some children in this age range have great difficulty in understanding euthanasia as a humane act. It can be very hard for some of these kids to understand how quality of life, prognosis, or cost of care direct medical decision making.
9 - 12: These kids understand death, including the knowledge that all living things must die. Reactions often mirror those of adults in the home.
Adolescents understand death like adults, but may feel the need to conceal emotions, or may have exaggerated responses. Teenagers can be volatile and changeable, wanting empathy one minute and solitude the next.
In general, the following tips apply
When possible, start early to prepare children for what is to come. As soon as you learn that your pet has a terminal illness, it’s a good idea to let the kids know about end of life. These initial conversations may, but don’t have to, include talking about euthanasia.
When possible, include children in the decisions (including euthanasia) that are being made for a family pet. Children may want to help prepare a ceremony or other special remembrance. Pictures, letters, candles and other activities may help get kids involved in saying goodbye. These activities may take place before or after the loss.
Don’t lie to kids, or overly shield them from what is happening. This is especially challenging when a child unreasonably wants to pursue treatment regardless of prognosis or costs of care. If you feel the issue of euthanasia is too upsetting for your child, it may be better to prepare them for the death without going into detail about euthanasia.
Don’t exclude them from family discussions – kids know when they are being left out and can be deeply hurt by this.
When giving empathy and insight, don’t assume you know what the child is feeling or wondering – ask them what they are worried or sad about, and what their questions are. Do not assume kids have the same existential concerns that adults have. Give comforting direct answers to the questions they ask and explain things at a level they can understand.
Reassure them regarding what they are concerned about (e.g. that it’s ok to cry, fear of death, guilt). Explain that death is natural and is not bad or a punishment.
Avoid euphemisms, especially “put to sleep” – these can be very confusing to children.
These resources can help parents prepare a child for the loss of a pet, or give support after they say goodbye: