What to say to your kids when a pet dies

We recently lost our pet cat of 13 years. Our cat was the first pet my nine-year-old daughter knew and loved, and we considered him a member of our family. He was so good with my daughter when she would dress him up, spontaneously pick him up for cuddles, or attempt to teach him tricks for treats. He was her “bud.” He was a buddy to all of us.

What to say to your child when a pet dies

Our hearts broke when we suddenly lost him. Who knew one little bundle of fur could have such an impact on our lives and our hearts!?

As soon as I suspected something was wrong with our cat, I brought him to the vet. It was a school day, but before my daughter left that morning I made it clear that our cat was sick and was going to see his vet. I told her because our cat was not eating or drinking and generally wasn’t himself, and in case the worst case scenario happened while my daughter was at school, I felt honesty was the best policy. Had she been younger, I may have simplified it a bit by saying he was going to the “doctor” because he wasn’t feeling well, but she is older and recognized he had not been eating or drinking.

When the vet told me it was cancer and the outlook was grim, my immediate thoughts went to my daughter – how was I going to tell her that her “bud” would never get better? Within 24 hours of that diagnosis, we said goodbye to our beloved family cat.

My daughter had yet to lose a close family member and I wanted to make sure I could help her understand death as best I could. At first, I struggled with how to talk to my daughter about when a pet dies. I found this discussion especially hard because I was emotional too.

What to say to your kids when a pet dies

Firstly, I let her know that it is common for pet owners to feel as though they’ve lost a member of the family when their pet dies. Not all family members are human. Our cat was a member of our family for 13 years!

Show emotion

I also let her know that is okay (and good) to feel sad and show emotion. We cuddled and cried a lot together that first couple of days.

Share special memories

Amidst the tears we each shared special memories, funny stories and looked through old pictures of our cat.

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Answer questions the best you can

When questions arose regarding why it happened so quickly, I assured her the veterinarians did everything they could to try and help our cat and were very kind. I also reassured her that our cat is no longer in pain or is scared.

Be honest

One thing I wanted to make sure of was that my daughter understood that our cat died. I wanted her to understand death and not think our cat was at a fictional farm – even if she were younger I would still make sure she understood this on whatever level she would have been comfortable with. I let my daughter guide me about how much information she needed, but remained truthful.

My daughter believes our cat is in “pet heaven” now. She often tells our dog, who continues to look for her furry friend, to look up at the sky – because the cat is probably up there telling her to not eat his treats. When I hear this it makes me sad all over again, but I don’t hide my sadness. I want her to know that it’s okay to cry when you are feeling sad.

Keep the conversation going

We continue to talk about our cat and have discussed adopting another cat… but not as a replacement, and not right away. Our hearts need to mend first before we welcome another cat into our family.

My daughter has handled our cat's death very well - better than me, I think! She has asked lots of questions regarding what we're going to do with his stuff, where his spirit is, and if it feels weird to expect to see him all the time. And I answer each question as best and as honestly as I can.

When considering a pet for your family, always keep in mind how you will handle it when your pet passes away. Losing a pet is the one thing my husband dreads the most when it comes to owning a pet, and unfortunately love and loss go hand-in-hand.