Discussing the Death of a Loved One or Pet With Children

More than 12 years ago, I adopted the most calm-mannered dog you could ask for. His name was Nipsy, which didn’t match his demeanor at all. Nipsy was a gentle soul who never barked, nipped, or showed signs of aggression. He was severely abused by his previous owner and came into my life unexpectedly. He was there through thick and thin, good and bad, laughter and tears. When I had children, they loved Nipsy, too, of course! He was our family dog. 

But, as we know, dogs don’t live nearly as long as humans. 

Recently, Nipsy had to be put down. He was 15 years old. When he got sick I made the decision to let him go. Saying goodbye was extremely difficult. I cuddled with Nipsy and told him I loved him. We shared some time together but because of the pandemic, family members couldn’t be with us. 

Telling my sons that Nipsy had died and wasn’t coming home was heartbreaking. As a trained counselor, I knew there were some ‘best practices’ for talking about death and loss with children. It didn’t make the situation less sad, but it did make it more manageable. 

Here are some tips for talking with your kids about death, should the need arise.

Use Intentional Words

People often refer to euthanization of a pet as putting the pet “to sleep.” This word choice can be confusing for kids and provoke fear. I once heard a woman tell her granddaughter that Papa had “gone to sleep forever.” You should have seen the look of confusion that came over that tiny six-year-old’s face. I stepped in quickly and explained that actually, grandpa had died. He wasn’t sleeping. He had passed away. 

Kids can handle a lot, if you’re honest with them. When I came home from having Nipsy “put to sleep,” I told my sons, “Nipsy had gotten so sick that doctors didn’t think they could fix his sickness. Nipsy died.” I remember saying it clearly and intentionally. Their response was, “Oh no, I’m really going to miss him.” 

Answer Questions Honestly

My sons had some questions about Nipsy’s death. They wanted to know why the doctor couldn’t fix him. Why don’t dogs live as long as we do? Could we ever get another dog? And my favorite question, “Did Nipsy go to Heaven like your daddy did?” I listened carefully to each question and answered honestly. Doctors and medicine can’t fix everything. Eventually, all living things die. Of course we could get another dog, when we are ready. And… “I certainly hope there are animals in Heaven. I think Nipsy is probably laying in the sun napping beside my daddy.” 

Validate Their Feelings

Adults often shut down uncomfortable feelings because they are…well, uncomfortable. When a kid is crying, you’ll hear moms and dads say, “It’s okay, stop crying. It’s okay.” When in reality, it’s not okay (yet). It’s sad, painful, and heartbreaking. What is okay is crying! Crying is one of the ways our body copes with strong feelings. Instead of focusing on the crying, focus on the feelings. Try saying: “You know, I’m sad too.” “I know you’re really going to miss him.” “It’s okay to be sad and cry. Would you like a hug?” Validating a child’s feelings creates trust and rapport in the relationship. It also teaches them how to vocalize and communicate emotions, rather than stopping them or hiding them. 

Talk to Them About Death Before it Happens

In my family, we often talk about death and dying. I’m not morbid about it. We don’t dwell on it, but we do talk about it openly and honestly. I have explained to my sons that people die when they get older. Some young people die from illness or accidents. I’ve shared my beliefs about what happens after we die. We’ve talked about funerals, hospitals, medicine, health, illness, and a multitude of other things. I truly believe that this approach made Nipsy’s loss go much smoother than expected.

I certainly wish that you would never need to talk with your children about death, especially if they are young. That said, it’s always a good idea to be prepared. Chances are if you have pets or older family members you will need to talk to your child about death and loss, eventually. I hope my advice provides some support during a difficult time.

Communication amongst family is so important, even more so when it comes to death. For more advice, check out Tips for Connecting With Teenage Kids This Summer.


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