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Coffee Talks: Toddlers and the Death of a Pet

A sky with colors of blue, pink, and yellow are seen with some clouds. At the top of the image is a grey title box with the title Coffee Talks: Toddlers and the Death of a Pet.

This past week, we came home from grocery shopping to find our elderly cat had passed away. We adopted him a little over a year ago. Adopting an older cat was something we felt very passionate about, because the cat had previously lost his owner. We couldn’t let him spend his remaining years in a shelter, so we brought him home to meet the family.

Moose was our geriatric gentleman, and he lived to be about 16 years old. Lately, we’ve noticed a few signs that pointed to his age taking a toll on him, but we never thought he’d pass this soon. He never showed signs of pain or stopped eating and drinking, but his mobility was slowing down.

We have another cat, Winnie, who is 6 years old. She was like his adopted daughter. We also have two dogs, a rescue named Fergus and a doberman mix named Toretto. Fergus will be two on Thanksgiving, and Toretto and Winnie are two months apart. Our home is a zoo, and we love it. If you want to know more about our furbabies, you can check out a post I dedicated to them here.

Learning to Cope

When it comes to deaths, we’ve experienced a handful of relatives passing as well as a beloved dog. However, our kids were too young to even say the words death or grief, let alone understand those concepts when they happened. Teaching my toddlers about the death of a pet isn’t something I’m ready to do, but I’m not sure anyone ever is.

Truth be told, I’m terrible at handling grief when it comes to pets. When my husband and I’s first dog was hit by car at the age of 2, I spent 7 hours sitting in my walk-in closet with a fifth of whiskey. He was our first dog together, and we hadn’t even considered having kids at that time. The same evening he was hit, I all but broke my buddies jaw with a left hook, because I was so angry he and my sister-in-law left the door wide open for my dog to wander off in the first place.

So yeah, I’ve had to learn how to cope a whole hell of a lot better since becoming a mom. Now, I’ve learned to turn my emotions off and cry in the bathroom while the water runs, but that is also not healthy. I want my kids to learn how to cope with grief and death in a healthy way, so I did some research and applied some new strategies.

My son is 4, and my daughter will be turning 3 this winter. Both of my littles loved Moose, and he took turns laying with them at nap and bedtimes. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy explaining that he not only passed away, but they couldn’t say goodbye in a traditional sense.

Teaching Toddlers How to Cope with Death of a Pet

Stick with the Facts:

This isn’t going to be easy, but stick with the facts. Don’t use euphemisms like “went away.” Be honest, and explain that death happens. Be calm. and repeat yourself.

Toddlers will not only need the repetition, but they also need you to be brief and straight forward. Dancing around the truth to sugar coat things can lead to confusion. I know it may seem harsh to be blunt, but having them understand that the pet isn’t coming back is important.

Let Emotion Flow:

You little ones are going to be confused at first, but continue to support and reassure them. Let them know it’s okay to be sad or angry. It’s okay to let the emotions flow, because feelings are a natural part of all of us.

You should also know that it’s more than okay to cry with your kids. Losing a pet hurts, and that hurt is okay to feel. Encourage them to be open with their feelings. Talking about the loss will help them understand not only the situation, but the circle of life.

Feelings, whether they are sad or angry, are normal. Discussing those feelings and also reminiscing about the pet is important. It’s apart of the grieving period. Share the good memories you all have as a family, and become your own support group for each other.

Say Goodbye:

We all have our own ways to say goodbye. For us, we bury our pets in our back yard. We also plan to have a memory garden. The kids will be apart of the gardening process too.

Saying goodbye doesn’t have to be a one and done deal. I still grieve and remember my lost pets often. Letting the little ones visit their graves can be important to them. We also plan on making stones with handprints, so the kids can put their emotions into a craft.

Everyone says goodbye in their own way, so we let the kids find a way that works for each of them. Our daughter’s way of saying goodbye is talking about how Moose made her happy, but our son is a bit more quiet. He still says an extra goodnight for Moose.

Letting kids process their emotions differently was important for us. Saying goodbye in their own ways was also important. There isn’t a specific way that one should grieve or say goodbye, so we let them know they may deal with this loss differently but can still do it together.

Decide When to Add a New Pet:

When our first dog was hit, we had a new puppy in less than two weeks. Originally, the puppy was supposed to be a companion for our other dog, but he was hit before the new pup was ready to be adopted.

Carrying that new puppy into the house felt like a reminder of loss at first, but then, I was able to put all of that love into the new puppy. Getting a new pet right away doesn’t work like that for everyone, and it’s not always best. You have to do what’s best for your family and kids, because we all grieve and heal differently when it comes to the loss of pet.

Toddlers Need Time

As toddlers, they still don’t fully grasp death the way adults do, but they are learning. They are grieving in their own ways. Toddlers need time with everything that they learn, and that includes death and grief.

Recently, our daughter has been laying with one of Moose’s favorite blankets, and I’ve caught her crying a time or two. During those moments, I remind them that it’s okay to be sad.

Also, I try to share memories of pets that I have lost. Explaining that mommy has gone through grief and the loss of a pet also made them feel less alone. It also helped them to understand that death does and will happen.

Life moves, and we all grow old and die. This isn’t an easy concept for anyone, let alone little kids. Approaching with caution but honesty has been the best route through all of this. It’s been a very hard time for us, because losing a beloved pet feels like loosing a family member.

On top of all of this, we have a few grandparents with cancer, and they don’t have much longer to live. Our kids will experience a few more deaths within these next few years, and it’s pretty agonizing to think about. However, death is a very realistic part of life, and it’s something we all have to experience at some point or another.

Learning about and experiencing death will always be a challenge regardless of age. For us, being together and celebrating the life of a pet or person is going to be what pulls us through and makes us stronger as a family.

Going through these last few weeks has been a struggle, but there is always a lesson and a chance to grow from all of this.

I’d love to hear some of your favorite pet memories. I hope your week is great!

-With Love,

Jenni

18 Comments »

  1. I had 2 cats I cared for for over 18 years. They passed away at the same age and they were a year apart. I still grieve over them and miss them so much. I haven’t been able to love another cat like I loved them. That’s why I have my puppy now. Losing pet is difficult. It can be difficult for kids because there’s someone missing

  2. Sending you so much love, prayers, and healing vibes. Your kiddos are so lucky to have such a strong (yes, strong, because you are! <3 ) compassionate and honest Mama. It is interesting because I find adults are more squeamish about death then little ones are. Kids seem to have a healthier outlook and approach that far surpasses their age, and I always wonder where and when we as adults lose that and become almost afraid of talking about death and grief. I love that my nephews and nieces (both those who were lucky enough to know my sister and those who were born after she died) talk about her and will ask questions. They help keep her memory alive. I sleep with her stuffed animal that she had as a baby, and my youngest niece especially loves it and will always tell me this was Auntie Jacquies and it melts my heart so much. <3

    • That’s so beautiful and incredible. You’re family sounds immensely strong. Thank you for all your sweet and amazing words. I genuinely appreciate you and our blogging connection. I’m sorry you’ve experienced that type of loss, but your resilience is inspiring!!!

    • Thanks. It was a challenge, but I prefer to be honest as opposed to trying to hide it. Whether they were ready to learn about death or not, death doesn’t wait for us to be ready.

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