For animal lovers, no matter what age, the passing of a family pet is a significant loss for the family. And for kids who are born into homes with pets already, those animals may feel as much a part of the family as anyone else.
Toddlers can definitely experience a sense of loss when a family pet is no longer part of the household and certainly do pick up on the feelings of their caregivers. Playing with and giving their pet treats are often parts of a toddler's regular routine, and they come to recognize the daily walks or letting the animal in/ out of the house.
What They Understand
Toddlers will comprehend that a pet is no longer present and feel the sadness and anxiety of adults around them. (Remember, babies as young as 27 weeks can pick up on the emotions of their caregivers.)
But toddlers cannot understand the concept—especially the permanence—of death, and they will believe that the pet will return. And young children can become easily confused by the language well-meaning adults use around death. Comments such as, "He went to bed and didn't wake up" or "She went bye-bye and won't come back," "He was put to sleep," can lead to fear of sleeping or saying goodbye, which are both normal parts of the daily routines in a toddler's life.
What to Say
For many children, a pet's death is one of their first experiences with loss. It is best to give short, simple explanations about it, and what you say will be guided by what you know about your toddler. Use your own judgment when deciding whether to point out the absence of the animal before the child notices—you may want to bring this up in the morning, if that's when usual daily pet routines begin.
A sample explanation might be:
Fluffy died last night. That means he's not here today or anymore. It makes Mommy very sad, and it's ok if you feel sad too.
Here's what else you can say …
- When your toddler first notices your pet isn't around: No, she isn't here. I wish she was here, too.
- If your toddler repeatedly asks about or looks for the pet: He's not coming back. I know, it's very sad…
- If the pet was ill and you have older toddlers or preschool-age children (for whom you can explain more specifics): She died, which means that she was very sick and her body stopped working. She can't move or play or eat.
For children between 18 and 24 months of age, it is important not to share too many details about the death and to be careful about the language you choose. Don't divulge information about the animal having been in an accident or put to sleep—the language and circumstances surrounding these events would be very confusing for a toddler. In fact, for children at this age, the details about the death are not important as they will not be able to understand what happened; worse yet, he may misunderstand and become fearful.
Depending on your family's spiritual beliefs, you may want to explain where you believe your pet's spirit is now. Just remember to keep the language simple.