When a Pet Dies: How to Have the Talk

Cynthia Dermody
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There's an episode of the TV series Harold and the Purple Crayon called "I Remember Goldie," that my daughter and son absolutely love. In the story, Harold is grief-stricken when his beloved goldfish dies. With the help of a mermaid, he discovers ways to use his art to honor his pet and remember the good times they had together. The story ends with Harold coming to terms with Goldie's death and finding peace.

We've never had pets, so I haven't had that specific "dying" talk with my little ones yet. But it's something that many of us moms will have to do eventually, either because of the loss of a pet, family member or friend, or because this is the age when they simply start to ask, Mommy, what does it mean to die?

I wondered how other moms explained the death of a pet or loved one to their toddlers, and here's what some of them said:

When my grandmother passed away, I just simply told my kids that she's in a better place, that she is with God. And that this is where we all go when we're done here. Knowing that this is just a stage of our eternity, they are comforted knowing they will see our loved ones again. jenettyshome

I think it's important to lay the ground work early instead of having it come out of the blue. And since a lot of kids play stuff like "killing" and "dead" and all that, I wanted them to know it isn't something to "play" at. I know it's actually a good thing for kids and parents to act it out, but I can't stand hearing or seeing kids make a game of dying. I let them know it is serious, often sad, and final. I lost my dad a few years ago, and I've talked to them about it, let them know that when someone has lost someone that it might make them sad to hear other kids joking about it. crazywith4

I use a pair of gloves. When we are born our Spirit (hand) enters the Body (glove). We make our glove work by our spirit. We move our (fingers) and dance and clap. Then when it is our time to die, our Spirit (hand) leaves the Body (glove). We bury the Body (glove) out of respect for the good job it did. Then our Spirit (hand) is free to watch out for others that are in their gloves. We are like angels and watch over those left in their gloves or on earth. And we are able to go to heaven. Flamekisser

This blog post by Susan Heim on helping toddlers cope with the death of a pet had tons of great advice for how and when to have the talk, including:

  • Don’t tell your children their pet was “put to sleep” because they may get false hopes that it will wake up again;
  • If possible, pick your time wisely to tell your children that Princess has died. You don’t want to tell your child that her cat died right before she’s ready to get on the school bus; and
  • As with Harold, let your children help you think of a way to memorialize your pet. Plant a tree in the pet’s honor. Make a homemade gravestone. Put together a photo collage for their room.

How did you/would you explain death to your toddler?

What about those of you who aren't religious--can you offer some suggestions?


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