All Dogs Go to Heaven...and Cats and Gerbils and Birds
Dealing with a Pet Loss in the Family
By Michele Wojciechowski
For many children, the first time they will encounter death is with the
passing of a family pet. Parents may not
automatically know how to help their children deal with and work through their
feelings when that happens, but there are concrete ways they can help them cope
Andrew Mazan, director of funeral and cemetery
services at the nonprofit Baltimore Humane Society in Reisterstown, says one of
the most important things for parents to do when a pet is ill or dying is to be
honest with their children. Often, in the past, parents would tell their kids
the dog or cat “went away” or even “went to live on a farm,” when the truth was
the pet had died. Although some parents may still think that's a better
approach, it really isn’t.
“If you say that a pet is 'leaving,' there’s always a possibility that the
children are going to think that it’s somehow their fault—that they
didn’t treat the pet right or play with them enough,” says Mazan.
“That’s really one of the worst things that could happen, because the child has
nothing to do with the pet’s natural course of death, and it’s important to
stress that there’s nothing the child did wrong.”
Cantor Ellen Schwab, bereavement counselor for the Baltimore Humane Society,
agrees. She adds that, when it comes to children or teens, it’s important for
parents to use the words “death” and “dying” as long as the children can
understand what those words mean. “Because if we use euphemisms, there is so
much room for error,” she explains. “If you say the dog is 'going to sleep,'
depending on the children’s ages, they may be afraid to then go to sleep.
“If you say the dog or kitty 'went away,' there are two issues here: the child
will be waiting for the pet to return, and then there’s the danger of promoting
Saying that a pet simply 'left' can also lead to a child having abandonment
issues. “Either one—self-blame or abandonment—is detrimental to the
development of the child,” says Schwab. “It’s also important not to blame the
veterinarian. Parents will sometimes want the child to not blame them for
taking their pet away or for euthanizing their pet, so they will blame the
Both Mazan and Schwab say the most important thing
for parents to do when a pet dies is to show compassion—both for their
children and for themselves. It’s okay, says Schwab, for parents to let their
children see them be sad or cry. They can even use the occasion to teach them
about the circle of life, pointing out that there is birth, life, and death for
Children younger than age 2, says Schwab, will respond to a pet's death based
on the reaction of their parents. If the parents are sad, they will be, too. At
ages 2 to 5, they will likely miss the pet as a playmate but perhaps not as an
object of love. They may revert to a self-soothing behavior like thumb-sucking. Parents need not be concerned about that, as
it is completely normal, but if the behavior lasts an inordinate amount of
time, Schwab suggests seeking professional help.
Schwab says children ages 5 through 10 will typically go through the classic
stages of dealing with the death of a loved one: denial, anger, bargaining,
depression, and acceptance.
Teens may react by becoming more isolated, says Mazan.
Thus, it’s especially important for their parents to be honest with them and
open about discussing their own feelings so that the teens can feel comfortable
sharing theirs. “It’s really important to deal with these feelings as they come
and not stuff them and block them,” encourages Mazan.
Parents also might want to consider having some kind of memorial observance
that their children can participate in. For instance, says Schwab, parents can
gather all the pet’s toys and any other personal mementos, making a display
that they keep in view for a while after its death. That can help children
psychologically, allowing them to keep the pet in mind while reinforcing that
even though the pet is gone, its memory will remain with the family. Other
families might plant a tree in a place that was special to the pet or do
something else to honor it.
If, at some point, the family decides to get another pet, the children should
be involved. And while the time frame of how long to wait will naturally vary
for each family, both Mazan and Schwab agree that it
shouldn’t be done too soon—like the day after the pet dies.
Getting a pet that soon often leads to unrealistic expectations. “If you lived
with Scruffy for 10 years, and then you bring home this new dog, and he doesn’t
emulate the exact behaviors of the old pet, you’re not going to treat him as
you should,” says Mazan. “And you need to be able to
build a relationship with that pet without wanting him to be like the old dog.”
Adds Schwab, “It’s really important that parents
completely understand that grief over a pet is perfectly normal, and it needs
to be dealt with in the same way as the death of a loved one.” BC
The Baltimore Humane Society in Reisterstown holds a pet bereavement support
group the first Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. It also offers a free private
counseling session with bereavement counselor Cantor Ellen Schwab, either in
person or by phone. Families need not have gotten their pet at the Baltimore
Humane Society in order to participate in either
service. For more information, call the Baltimore Humane Society, at
In addition, there are many books that can help children and their families
cope with the death of a family pet. Among them are “Dog Heaven” (Blue Sky
Press, 1995) and “Cat Heaven” (Blue Sky Press, 1997), both by Cynthia Rylant and geared toward ages 4 and older. “Pet Loss: A
Thoughtful Guide for Adults and Children” (Harper Perennial, 1996) by Herbert
A. Nieburg and Arlene Fischer, meanwhile, offers a
more comprehensive, practical treatment of the topic.
© Baltimore’s Child Inc. May 2012