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When Fido Goes to Heaven

The loss of a beloved pet is often the first time a child has experienced the death of a close family member. Depending on the age of your child, parents can take some steps before hand to prepare the child for the death of a pet.


Talk with the child about the pet’s impending death. “Missy has cancer; she is going to die soon.” Although it may seem harsh to be blunt and straightforward, clear communication about what is going to happen is important. Ambiguous language or stories to ‘soften the blow’ like, “Missy is going to a farm,” will only make the loss more difficult when it does occur. (Not to mention, you’ll have to do some quick thinking the day your kids ask for the exact address of that farm.) If you have decided to try some aggressive veterinary treatments to try to prolong the pet’s life, talk with your child about that, let them know that the treatment may help the pet live a bit longer. Also talk with your child about the affects of the treatments, i.e. “Missy may sleep a lot and throw up sometimes,” or “Farley will have to get his side shaved and he’s going to have stitches.” If you have decided to forgo treatment, this is also important to discuss with children, helping kids understand that sometimes families decide not to put their pet through further pain, choosing instead to let them go.

Put together a memory box. You can enlist your child’s help to pick out an appropriate box; then decide what you would like to put in the box. Pick out pictures of the pet to include in the memory box or create a scrapbook. Take lots of pictures and video of your children with the pet. Once your pet has died, keep the memory box in a place that is easily accessible to your child so they can access it on their own. Keep in mind the Humane Society does accept donations of used washable pet toys, large crates, unopened pet food, etc. If you do decide to donate some of your pet’s items to the Humane Society, take your child with you when you drop off the items, and talk with your child about how those items will be given to animals that don’t have a family, like your pet did.

Answer your child’s questions. Being open with your kids will likely bring up some questions. Your vet and/or websites on grieving the loss of a pet can be great resources when trying to answer questions. Discussions around parent’s thoughts and beliefs regarding death may be triggered by the death of a pet. If parents believe in heaven, your child might have questions about what heaven looks like – parents can put a question like this back on children, asking them what they imagine heaven looks like. This begins the process of children forming beliefs about what happens when someone dies. A child may also be curious about what happens to the pet’s body after they die – your response to this question will depend on the age of your child and how much information you think your child needs. Pet owners can choose to have the pet cremated with the ashes put in an earn and given to the family. Owners can also get paw prints of their pets to have as a keepsake.

Once your pet has died, honor their memory and allow your child to grieve. Acknowledge your child’s feelings and grief as normal feelings when a loved one dies. This can be as simple as ordering a pizza and sitting around talking about favorite memories of the pet to having family and friends over to share in the goodbye. Talk out their feelings of grief. While it’s important to talk about the good memories of a pet, it’s also important to acknowledge why the pet died. Children, (and adults), can get stuck in their grief when they only focus on the good times; talking through the pet’s illness, what was done to help the pet medically are important aspects as well.

Emphasize that the pet was very, very old and very sick – sicker than a cold or flu. After a child has experienced a pet’s death, they may become preoccupied with fears that other family members they care about will die. Reassuring children that death typically happens when someone is very old can help alleviate any anxiety that may develop.


Do not allow someone to minimize your child’s sense of grief. Some people believe a pet is 'just a pet,' and 'what’s the big deal, just go get another one.' If your child is experiencing grief, that is a real emotion for them and they need understanding and support in how to deal with these emotions. If you find your child’s grief is all encompassing, and intensifies for a prolonged period of time, it may be helpful to get a professional involved to help your child work through their grief. While people do grieve differently and at different rates, it’s important to get help for someone who is ‘stuck’ in their grief.

Do not talk about a pet going to sleep, being put to sleep, etc. This can result in children interpreting that they will die if they go to sleep, creating problems around bedtime/sleeping patterns that were not present before.

Do not get a new pet right away. Allowing the family time to grieve is very important. Coming to terms with grief is a valuable life skill, as over your child’s lifetime, there will be other situations arising that involve grief. How your child deals with their first encounter with loss will impact how they deal with losses in the future.

Stephanie, MSW, RSW, ECEIII, is a mother of two, and has worked with many children and families through a number of city agencies and childcare settings.

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