I’m often asked in my work as an animal chaplain, “How should I handle things with my kids when our pet dies? What should I say and do?”

My first piece of advice is be honest with them. Do not hide your own emotions or play it stoic because you don’t want to upset them. They’ve just lost a dear friend, so of course they’re going to be upset. It’s natural and normal. It’s also natural and normal for you to feel sorrow, grief, guilt, anger, etc. yourself because you no doubt loved this animal, too, and are grieving a loss. If you bury your true feelings and put on a mask for your kids’ sake, you’re being disingenuous and teaching them that feelings are bad, wrong, or something you cannot show anyone. Do you really want to embed that lesson on their young psyches?

My second piece of advice is to explain to them in as simple and straightforward a way as you can what happened to cause the pet’s death. Was it old age, disease or an accident? Above all, make clear to your child that he/she did not cause the pet’s death (unless, of course, he or she did, even accidentally—then that’s a whole separate issue). Don’t just buy another lookalike animal to sneak in as a replacement. Don’t fib and say the pet is sleeping, and don’t lie and say he or she ran away. Both of those explanations leave a door open for children to hope for the pet to eventually waken or return to them. That’s not fair to make them hold false hope. Even very young children can handle the explanation that the part of your pet that breathed and moved and purred/barked/squeaked and whose heart beat has left its body. The pet is no longer around in a regular physical sense and won’t be able to be alive again.

But, if you’re philosophically comfortable with this explanation, you can tell them that the soul/spirit part that was inside that once helped them move and be alive has separated from the body. That soul part, though something you can’t see, like the air or sound, still exists but is now without any pain or fear because it was allowed to leave the body at the exact right time for that dear pet because he or she was no longer able to make use of his or her body. It was too old and sick or caused the pet too much pain. The soul had to leave it behind and move on without it, like shedding its skin or a shell it has outgrown.

Furthermore, if it is in keeping with your sense of spirituality, you may explain that the invisible part of the pet still lives in all your hearts and memories or in heaven, if that is more in keeping with your beliefs. Whatever your explanation, make sure it’s what’s true for you. It’s fine to let the children know the pet is not suffering anymore and that he or she is happy to be free of pain. You can also say the pet didn’t want to leave your family, but he or she simply had no other choice. The pet still loves you all even though it had to go.

This may lead to children questioning whether you and they will someday die. Again, you must be honest with them, but you can reassure them that it will likely not happen for a very, very long time. Lead by example and encourage them to practice healthy habits to increase the likelihood of a long life.

My third piece of advice is to have the kids take part in memorializing the pet’s life in some way. Have them draw or paint pictures, write stories or letters, organize a funeral service, create a grave marker, say a prayer or poem, scatter the pet’s ashes somewhere special, and/or plant a tree or other perennial plant in his or her honor. They can invite friends or other family members who knew and cared about the pet to join with them in celebrating the pet’s life. Encourage them to share cherished memories about their pet with others. Cry along with them if you feel the urge. Show them it is OK to express all their feelings.

Finally, you can reassure your child that, when the time is right, you can invite another pet into your hearts and home, but I strongly caution you against running right out and buying another pet right away. Explain that you all need time to feel sad for as long as necessary, but when you all start to feel better, you can ask your departed pet to help paw-pick for you the exact right next animal family member and make sure you find each other.

Tell them that they will never replace this last pet in their hearts, and that it’s just fine to always love and remember him or her; but he or she would want them to share their love and give a good home to another animal that needs them—again, when the time is right. They can love that new pet in a whole new way because he or she will be a different animal with a personality all his or her own.

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