It is unbelievably hard to say good-bye to a pet for anyone. Pets are apart of our family and when they die or get sick and have to be put to sleep, we as adults even struggle with the situation. I went through this for the first time last year when we had to make the hard decision to let our first Furbaby go due to horrible cancer taking over Pun-kin's body.
Jude was almost 3 when we had to say good-bye to Pun-kin, we were open and honest with Jude and still answer all of his questions to this day. Jude is very inquisitive, he still asks about Pun-kin and why he died. Often the question comes up about how we talk to Jude about death. We are honest.
Here are my tips on how to explain Pet Death to Toddlers.
Be Honest and Open: When we went through this we made sure to stick to the facts with Jude. We did not go into details about why Pun-kin would be gone but we certainly did not tell a story about him going to a farm or something like that. We simply said that Pun-kin is very sick and because of that he will die and go to Heaven. We answered his questions with honest answers. We also made sure he knew that Pun-kin wouldn't be in our home anymore. The idea of death is so new to children that they may not even realize that means that the pet will not be in the home anymore.
Show your emotions: As Pun-kin was getting sicker I often held him and told him I was sorry he didn't feel well, this allowed me to show Jude that I was sad. When we told Jude that Pun-kin was dying I was crying. I couldn't hold it back and I was okay with that. Jude seeing my pain and grief allowed him to see empathy and sadness in losing a pet. Some experts say not to cry but in our family, it is okay to cry when you are hurt, sad or in pain. While I do not want my children to feel like they need to take care of me or make me feel better at the moment that I was crying Jude walked over to me and hugged me and told me that he loves Pun-kin. Empathy and compassion from a 3 year old! What amazing character traits to build at such a young age.
Do not use "put to sleep": Finding the right words when explaining death is so important. As adults we use the words "put to sleep", it is the natural way we talk about letting a Pet die however, not the words we should use with our toddlers! This term can really scare and confuse a child - not to mention you might have a sleepless home! Simply use the word that we as adults have a really hard time using. Died, dying, dead.
Make sure he says Good-Bye: Death is final. We know that as adults. If you have a pet that you are "putting to sleep" make sure you take the time to have your toddler tell their pet good-bye and give them loves for the last time. Such an important part of letting go. If you have a pet that died unexpectedly with out a time to say good-bye to the animal do not skip this tip! Find a way for your child to say good-bye! Make a memorial of some sort if necessary.
Continue to talk about the Pet: Just like when a family member dies; continue to talk about the animal after he has died. Jude still brings up Pun-kin, sometimes it is good memories and other times he simply reminds us that he misses Pun-kin. Welcome these comments and continue to be patient with the questions and comments.
Heaven/Better Place: In our home we believe in Heaven and have had the Heaven discussion with Jude. We have explained Heaven to Jude when his great-grandpa died and also when Pun-kin died. Since that discussion he is almost comforted that Pun-kin just didn't disappear but that he is somewhere. Obviously your own beliefs will play a part in this tip.
Let him be curious about death: Jude is in a weird "interest in death" stage. Again, we are totally open and honest with him so I am sure that is why he is so intrigued. We simply take his questions and answer them. Letting him know that yes, everything and everyone dies but that it isn't something that he needs to worry about right now.
Hold off on a new pet: Take time for yourself and your family to adjust to this big change in your home. We have decided to hold off on this for a while due to the age of our other kitty but also Jude is still asking us to buy him another Pun-kin. This shows me he is not ready for a new pet. We simply cannot buy another Pun-kin. When your toddler can understand this concept maybe your home will be ready to invite a new friend in!
While we will all have to probably deal with a death of a family pet at some point I hope that these simply yet important tips can help the situation with your children. Pets take a special place in our hearts and our homes so when they have to die we all notice it. My deepest condolences to anyone going through the hard loss of a pet in the moment.