“I’m worried about how I’ll feel when he dies.”
I was curled up on my bed, reading a book, when my daughter crawled up and folded herself against me. Our dog was terminally ill. Her words were breathtakingly simple, frank, and to the point. Out of the mouths of babes.
We parents worry about how our kids will feel, too, and how to help them navigate their first experience with grief. Children of any age cannot be spared the painful feelings that accompany loss, but we can help them feel secure and foster the skills to help them be resilient throughout life’s ups and downs.
I am not a mental health professional, and this information, while carefully researched and gleaned from reliable sources, should not be considered a substitute for the advice of a trained clinical therapist. You should seek the help of a mental health professional if you are concerned about a child’s well-being.
Mahalo nui loa to Kelly Devine, LCSW, for reviewing this material.
How children understand death
When explaining death to a young child, it’s helpful to understand how they perceive the world, and how that colors their grasp of death.
Approximate ages 2-6
Magical Thinking: From about 18 months of age until 6-7 years, children typically believe:
- They are the center of the universe. Everything which happens to them or around them is about them.
- They can make wishes or fears come true just by thinking about them.
Example: One evening we were waiting for a table at our favorite restaurant. My three-year-old daughter was becoming restless, and her auntie sought to distract her. “Maybe we can make the pager beep by pulling on one of your curls!” she said, playfully straightening one of the spirals cascading down her little forehead. “BOING!” she cried, letting it go. At that moment, the pager did actually go off. For years, whenever my daughter grew impatient, she would try to make things happen by “boinging” her curl.
Why it’s important: While the above example is cute, children at this stage of development often make incorrect assumptions about cause and effect, and may blame themselves for events not under their control. For example, a child that becomes frustrated with his dog knocking over his block tower and wishes to himself that the dog would go away, may actually believe he caused a serious illness or accident to happen later on.
How you can help: Make sure young children understand that events are not their fault. Keep your language and description as neutral as possible. Be careful around the word “you,” as the child may connect what happened to themselves and assign blame. “The doctor tried to make Buddy feel better, but he was so sick that nothing could make him stop hurting or get better, and he died.”
Literal Thinking: Children may take euphemisms at face value, such as these common examples:
- “We had to put Buddy to sleep” = We caused Buddy to fall asleep and never wake up. Therefore, if I fall asleep, maybe I will never wake up.
- “Grandma is resting eternally now” = Grandma is just resting, and she will someday wake up and I will see her again.
Why it’s important: Referring to the “soul” or “spirit” will be too abstract for a young child to understand, and even Heaven can be difficult to grasp (as a young child I believed Heaven was literally up in the sky, just out of sight beyond the clouds). This doesn’t mean you need to hide your personal convictions about what happens to the soul after death. It is helpful to explain the death in simple terms of what it will mean to the child. “You won’t see Buddy again. His body doesn’t work anymore – he can’t see, or feel, or hurt, or breathe.”
Difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality: I used to love watching reruns of old sitcoms after morning kindergarten. My favorite was the show Bewitched. When I got to the episodes where the role of Darren was taken by a new actor, I was seriously confused and disturbed because I was too young to understand the difference between television and real life.
Those of you who are old enough will recall the Saturday morning cartoons where Wile E. Coyote met one fatal accident after another, only to defy physics and pop up again in hot pursuit of the Roadrunner. Young children already have difficulty grasping the permanence and irreversibility of death, and commonly expect that the beloved has just “gone away” for a while or will “undie.” While television and movies are not the cause of such fallacies, they can and do reinforce them.
Why it’s important: Children may ask questions about how the pet will eat, breathe, or walk around if they’re buried in the ground. It could be months or years before they stop asking when Buddy is going to “come back.” It can be frustrating to keep explaining that Fluffy can’t come back, but this is normal for young kids. It’s understandably tempting to go along with the assumption that the pet will someday return, but you will run the risk causing more pain down the road when they inevitably do not.
How you can help: Using blunt and descriptive terminology such as death, die, and dying can feel foreign, rude, and insensitive. With a gentle tone, it is possible to use such straightforward terminology in place of euphemisms and platitudes that we may find comforting. You can help by describing death in physical terms: “She won’t breathe, or feel, or eat, or hug anymore. Her body will stop and you won’t see her again.”
Approximate Ages 7-12
By age 9-10 most children begin to understand that death is truly permanent and irreversible. They have not, however, developed an adult understanding of their world.
Concrete thinking: At this stage of development, children tend to think in terms of “black and white:”
- Grandma died when she was 78, therefore people always die when they are 78.
- My older brother can stay up until 10:00, so it’s only fair if I get to stay up until 10:00.
- You can’t see me hiding under the bed, although my feet are sticking out in plain sight, because I can’t see you.
Why it’s important: Not yet ready to grapple abstract thinking in terms of relationships, patterns and connections, kids continue to take what is said to them literally and process information in terms of their physical world – sight, hearing, sound.
How you can help: As stated before, it is better to avoid euphemisms. It may be helpful to visualize what you are about to say. Imagine the result if someone took your words at face value, drawing a picture of your description. Try explaining things in terms of what your child may have seen if she was there: “When we woke up this morning, Buddy was breathing really hard with his mouth open, and he couldn’t lie down to rest. We knew that meant he was struggling to get the air into his lungs, and that it was really uncomfortable for him.”
Adolescence and Young Adulthood
Denial: While most adolescents firmly understand that death is truly permanent, they may cope with an impending loss by denying the seriousness of a loved one’s illness. This can be challenging for the adult caregivers who may be making the difficult decision about euthanasia. Teen and young adults might respond with anger, saying it’s not fair to the pet, even accusing adult decision-makers of murder.
You should also know that adolescents may depend on the support of friends as much as or more than they do parents or other close family members.
Reactions such as these can be hurtful, especially to caregivers already in a fragile state from their own grief. It’s helpful to remember that these are natural and healthy responses for their stage of development. If your relationships become strained, seeking help from a professional family therapist or counselor can be a loving and thoughtful gift to your family.
Delivering Unwanted News
Who should deliver the news?
A parent or other trusted caregiver is the best person to deliver difficult news to children whenever possible.
When to tell them
Children are sensitive to changes or preoccupations the adults around them, so it is best to tell them what is happening at the earliest opportunity, when there is ample time for questions and concerns. Even if in denial, they also deserve the chance to say their goodbyes to a beloved pet who is dying if that is possible.
Choosing the Words
If you can, try to find a time with few distractions. Children are very attuned to adults when they are upset about something, so it is best to let them know as soon as the outcome is certain. You can soften the blow by signaling that bad news is coming with statements such as “I have some sad news about Buddy,” or “I need to talk with you about Buddy. He’s very sick and something has happened.”
It is best to be direct and use simple, descriptive terms. Imagine you are painting a picture with words. Children will take in what they are able to understand. They may have a lot of questions about what they don’t. These questions may come up again minutes, weeks, even years later when they are better able to understand.
When delivering a larger amount of information (if you need to), break it down into 2-3 sentences at a time, then check for understanding. You can do this by pausing for a few seconds or asking “What can I explain better?” or “What still doesn’t make sense?”
Also be sure to:
- Reassure the child that it is not their fault.
- Let them know that it’s ok to feel sad, or angry, or whatever they are feeling.
- Encourage questions and discussion, and answer as honestly as you can. If you don’t know, that’s OK to say.
- It’s ok to express your own strong feelings of grief or cry, as long as the child knows it’s not their responsibility to make you feel better.
- You and your child may find that collaborating to honor your lost loved one to be comforting and healing.
- They may initially appear indifferent. Children commonly need time to process this new information. Be ready to talk when they are; if they don’t bring it up within a few days, it may be up to you to check in with them.
- Listen without judgement or interruptions if they do share feelings. You can show understanding and empathy with reflective statements or clarifying questions:
- It seems like you feel really sad and lonely when you think about Buddy.
- Do you mean you’re afraid someone else might die?
- It’s OK to share your convictions about the afterlife, if you have them. Respect any ideas that the child shares with you.
- Strengthen positive memories, without downplaying the negative ones with talk or doing something together to honor and memorialize your pet.
- There is no wrong or disrespectful way to grieve. Some children express their grief through art or play, which is very healthy.
- Maintain your usual routine as best you can. Death can create a sense of insecurity and uncertainty. Assure the child they will be taken care of.
- Let your child’s teacher and other caregivers know. Some children will regress or act out in response to change or loss; they deserve the benefit of compassion from all adults in their lives.
- When considering the developmental stages above, keep in mind that both children and adults may regress for a while after a major loss. This is very normal and temporary. Seek professional help if you are concerned.
I hope that this information helps you and your loved ones through a difficult time. The greatest kindnesses to a grieving child are validation of their feelings, offering the space to process in their own way, and letting them know you are there to help. As you walk this journey of healing together, you may find that your bond grows ever stronger – and really, I can’t think of a more beautiful final gift from a beloved animal friend.