We recently lost our family cat. She was ill, but it still came as a surprise that left us little time to plan the best way to explain her death to our daughter. Turning to the internet for guidance, I found many resources for explaining such a sensitive issue to a child, but I quickly felt overwhelmed by the potential consequences of saying the wrong thing.
A toddler or young child under the age of 9 may not be capable of understanding the permanence of death, but they can certainly feel a loss. Even babies can perceive their caregiver’s grief, and losing a pet can be a significant emotional event for the whole family.
I found that language was very important. Explaining too much or using certain words that our kitty’s absence was because she was sick, that she went to sleep and didn’t wake up, or that she went bye-bye forever, could cause fear of pretty typical activities, situations and phrases for little ones. The last thing I wanted was my daughter to fear the natural order of life.
So what could I say that wouldn’t impose fears of being sick, going to sleep or saying goodbye? I decided that I had to follow my own instinct and say what felt right to me. I found simple, gentle and straightforward words to be the most natural way to explain our family’s loss.
I told our daughter that our kitty had died and that meant she wasn’t here anymore. I explained that it made us all sad - including our other cat, who was still hiding under my desk - and that it is okay to feel sad.
While I chose my own words carefully, different families believe different things, and people approach loss in different ways, so there is certainly no one right thing to say.
Interestingly, her reaction was to direct sympathy towards our other cat. She asked if that kitty was crying because she missed her friend. I thought it was sweet. Maybe someone will think I said something wrong, but I’m not concerned… what I found most important in this sad time was teaching love and support while validating important emotions.
Tell us in the comments:
How have you explained the death of a pet to your children?