Helping toddlers (and you!) cope with the loss of a pet

With the recent death of our much-loved family pet bird, I was in uncharted territory with my three toddlers, and needed some help. Clinical psychologist, Dr Sasha Lynn, provides a toddler’s perspective on losing a pet, and some tips to help navigate through this difficult time.

It’s just another ordinary day of the week. We rush out of the house, cram into the car, and head off to day care. But not before my daughter calls out to our pet cockatiels:

“Goodbye Mia. Goodbye Cinda. See you when we get back,” she says.

It’s harmless enough, except that our pets Mia and Cinda are deceased, and have been for quite a few weeks. Is this normal? How should I react?

“Goodbye Mia, goodbye Cinda. See you when we get back,” I say, fearing I could be doing more damage than good.

“The thing with grief and loss is that there really isn’t one ‘right’ way,” Clinical psychologist, Dr Sasha Lynn explains. “Everyone experiences grief differently. As a parent, all you can do is be as open and honest as age appropriate.”

But what is age appropriate when it comes to discussing the loss of a pet?
young boy with his pet bird

Do they even understand what death is?

Mia died when the kids were very young. She was old, sick, and eventually we put her down at the veterinarians and buried her in the backyard. She was there one day, gone the next, and life for us as a family mostly continued as normal. Cinda, on the other hand, died suddenly, with the kids a little older, and while they were at home.

I’ll never forget walking into the house and the kids explaining it to me. They were shocked, excited, and super keen to talk to me about it, and for me to see her and pat her. It was a hard moment, made even harder by my eldest (four at the time) who wanted to hold her and my youngest (two at the time) who wanted her to wake up.

“When we’re dealing with younger children,” Dr Lynn explains, “they’re processing at a more concrete, ‘black and white’ stage, and so their understanding of the permanency of death isn’t quite there.”
young girl with bird sitting on her head
Alexander understood that Cinda had died, that it was a bit like sleeping, but didn’t realise that death meant she would never wake up. While Curtis understood that it was a more permanent state, but was still uncertain as to what that new state of permanence meant for him. He’d lost his little buddy.

“As they get older, they can understand that when a pet dies, they’re gone and not coming back,” Dr Lynn explains. But what that means for them is a little more complex and harder for them to grasp. “They’re still working through their understanding of death, and so can sway between ‘getting it’ and just plain ‘not’.”

How do we help our kids (and ourselves!) cope with the loss of a pet?

With one child wanting to hold Cinda, ‘forever’, and the other wanting to wake her up, it was my third child, Thalia, that tipped me over the edge.
She watched me like a hawk, following me about, and declaring that:

“When we bury her, Daddy, we will get sad. We will cry when Cinda dies, Daddy. We will cry and we will get sad.” I cried right then. How could my four-year-old-daughter’s words sound so sensitive and so unemotional all in the same breath?

“It’s important to remember where kids are coming from,” Dr Lynn says. “Their world is very black and white. They tend to pick up their reactions and responses to death from those around them, so while they may not fully understand what death means, they can see it is a sad time by seeing parents upset.”

Does that mean we should mask our emotions? Should I have held it together in front of the kids? Dr Lynn doesn’t think so.
son holding pet bird
“It’s important for parents to be honest and open about their experiences with death,” Dr Lynn says. “It’s a sad time, and it’s ok to express this in front of children. What really helps is to take the time to talk through your experience with your child. So, explaining that while it’s sad, it’s also a wonderful thing to love a pet, and share the lovely times you had with your animal companion.”

Together, we decorated a shoebox to bury Cinda in. We all drew our bit, and then went out into the backyard and dug the hole and buried her. We said our goodbyes. We talked about her, our friend, and yes, Thalia was right, we were sad and cried for our pet Cinda.

Dr Lynn recommends sharing some funny memories of your times with your pet, maybe looking through some of your old photos together, and even creating a memory book. 

“Help your child come to see that death doesn’t have to be scary. Losing pets is a part of life, and the more open we can be about it with our kids, the less taboo and fear surrounds it.”

What happens next, after the grieving period?

Over the coming days, weeks, and even months, the questions about Cinda and her death continued. For me, it was probably the least expected part of all of this. Although in hindsight it makes total sense. It’s such a strange thing for them. Cinda had always been there. This was the first time something seemingly permanent in their lives had been removed.

Alexander wanted us to ‘go and get her’ from out of the ground. Curtis wanted to ‘get another Cinda’ from the shops, and Thalia was keen to continue grieving, when it suited, and behaving as if Cinda was still alive, when it didn’t.

“It’s important to provide a supportive environment where kids feel comfortable to open up and ask questions,” says Dr Lynn. “Using the term ‘death’ and ‘dead’, instead of words like ‘sleeping’, or ‘went away’ helps take the confusion out of the issue. And empathising with your child that this must seem strange and sad, but that it’s a normal part of life, and that you’re still there and will help them through.”

Talking as a family about the fact that your pet isn’t going to come back can be helpful, Dr Lynn explains, and in respect to getting a new pet, she recommends making it clear that it wouldn’t be to replace the one that died, but rather to add a new chapter for your family’s journey.
daughter with new pet budgie
We waited quite a while before all of us were comfortable getting another bird as a pet. We decided on a different kind of bird, a new chapter as Dr Lynn suggests, and welcomed little Teema the budgie into the family. It’s a good fit. 

But it doesn’t stop Thalia farewelling Cinda and Mia when we leave the house in the morning.

“Goodbye Mia. Goodbye Cinda. Goodbye Teema. See you when we get back,” she says. It seems appropriate enough for now, and so we all join in.

For more resources on helping kids manage difficult emotions, click here.

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