How to Explain Death of a Pet to 3 Year Olds

By D.V. Klenak

Death is a nearly indescribable part of life, especially for children. Most often, children have the first experience with death through the death of a family pet. Between the ages of two and five, children view life almost like a video game, as if people or pets were immortal; therefore, experiencing the loss of a pet compounds this assertion. There are some things you can do as a parent to help guide your child through this experience and help them come to terms with this loss, or at least begin to form in their minds the concept of death. Keep in mind, at this age some children may not be able to exactly feel a direct sense of loss, but they will feel a sense of stress based on the emotions of other members of the household.

Be clear and do use these words: death, dead dying. Children need concrete terms to help them understand. Though it is common in adult language to say an animal was "put to sleep," in a child's mind this can cause them to somehow become fearful of "sleeping." Creating a story, like saying the pet ran away can also cause a child different types of grief, such as wondering why their friend would leave.

Explain the situation as early as possible. Bringing children into the discussion of a pet's condition, if a pet has an illness, can help them begin to understand early enough what is happening, so when the time comes, it won't be as big of a shock.

Use a veterinarian to explain to a child some of the scientific aspects of pet death. A family vet can be helpful in clearly explaining to a child the ordeal of having to put a pet down, as well as the reasoning behind it. For instance, if a pet is ailing, the vet can explain how the illness was affecting the pet's body and why death was required.

Show your grief. It is actually healthier to show your emotions to your child during this time to let them know these feelings are okay and normal when responding to death. If you hide your emotions, a child begins to make the connection that death and emotions are not normal.

Pay extra attention to your child. Some children, particularly children under the age of five, may not be able to exactly understand death, and therefore may continue to behave as they always have. However, they will recognize that something is not right, based on your emotions and those of the household. They will feel stressed and possibly confused. Ask them questions and give them extra attention during this time.

About the Author

D.V. Klenak is a current Master of Fine Arts student at Goddard College in fiction, where she is completing a novel. She has worked in the field of journalism as a freelance writer for 10 years, specializing in first-person interviews. Her current body of work consists of short stories, poetry, articles, and photography.