Talking to Your Preschooler About Pet Loss

“Where Coop Coop go?”

A question I get asked several times a week that I wasn’t prepared to answer. 

Our golden retriever, Cooper, had just turned five in April and was at the peak of health until suddenly one day he wasn’t himself. After four vet visits in a week, they found a large mass in the front of his chest. After the biopsy, I got that dreaded phone call. Terminal cancer with no options for treatment. Maybe a week, maybe a month, but no way to help him. I collapsed to the floor in disbelief and sheer grief. How was this possible? After my initial acute grief subsided, the immediate realization hit me: how am I going to tell my kids? 

My son, Jude, just turned 3 and is at that difficult age where he is aware enough to understand that Cooper is missing but not quite mature enough to understand where he went.

I immediately jumped into research mode while having to deal with the searing pain of grieving the impending loss of my fur baby. I so desperately wished that there was a concise article that would help navigate me this challenging situation, but couldn’t find it. I hope this article will help you if you are going through something similar. 

Tips for Talking to your Preschooler About Family Pet Loss

Start talking about it beforehand, but not too early

My toddler typically handles transitions best when we talk through the steps of what’s going to happen prior to the event. For example with potty training, we began talking through what would happen two weeks before we started. Same with saying goodbye to his pacifier, another two weeks of prep. I decided that it was best if we let most of what was left of Cooper’s time with us be full of happy memories. We decided that three days before the appointment we had made to put Cooper down would be the best time to start preparing Jude. It was enough time for him to be familiar with what was going to happen and associate what we had discussed with Cooper being gone but not so far ahead that we spent his last two weeks sad and confused.

Be direct in your language

Preschoolers are very matter of fact and think in black and white. As tempting as it is to want to protect them and use “fluffy” phrases to soften the blow of the news, try to use language that is as direct and simple as possible. Avoid using language like, “Cooper passed away”, “went to sleep and won’t wake up”, “has a boo boo that won’t get better” or, “Cooper is really sick and doesn’t feel good” as it can confuse them. Try not to sugarcoat anything as it will further jumble up their brain that can’t grasp the permanence of death.

You also will want to avoid using phrases like, “Cooper is really sick and doesn’t feel good” as it can lead them to believe that when they get sick they may die like their pet did. If your pet has cancer, tell them exactly that. They may not understand what cancer is, but you can explain it to them as best you can for their age level. To prepare Jude I simply told him, “Cooper has cancer and doesn’t feel good and his body doesn’t work anymore. Cooper is going to die. That means that we won’t be able to see him or play with him or pet him anymore. He won’t be at our house, and we won’t get to see him again.”

I then answer any follow-up questions he has by repeating a lot of these same facts. I had read a lot of information that advised against explaining the concept of heaven, but I went ahead and told him that is where Cooper was going since that is our belief. It ended up sparking a lot of dialogue about God and scripture which ended up being very healing for him and for us. Always do what is best for your family and your beliefs! 

Repetition is important and be patient

Be prepared to talk about it for a while. This was something I wasn’t sure that I was strong enough to handle. But honestly, talking him through his questions and emotions has been cathartic in helping myself work through my own grief and confusion about why this happened. 

It’s OK to get emotional when they ask questions

You are alongside them in this and you are their model for emotional regulation. It’s OK to be sad with them and talk through how you’re feeling to help them understand their feelings. If they ask why you are crying just be honest, “I’m crying because I miss Cooper ,and I’m sad that he died.” This helps to normalize sadness and grief for your kids and makes them feel safe and comfortable in their home. It’s also a good idea to share your favorite happy memories together with your pet. Jude’s face always lights up when we drive by the dog park and he tells me that it was Cooper’s favorite place. This helps them see that death is a part of life and not to fear it because it is part of the gift that is being alive. 

Find media and books on the subject

Jude always resonates a lot with books and characters he is familiar with. There are so many awesome resources out there to help your child process the loss of a loved one but here are two that we found to be most helpful:

In this book Daniel’s pet fish dies and he asks his parents questions about what happened to help him understand what dying means. I loved this book a lot because it teaches kids about how to handle the emotions that come with losing someone you love. There is also an episode version of this story that comes with a second storyline if your child resonates more with watching a show.

If you are planning on talking to your kids about heaven then this is a sweet, wonderful book that explains to kids what is waiting for their sweet doggies in heaven. It talks about how God is taking special care of them and about all of the amazing things that dogs love are plentiful in heaven. It helps to ease their worry about where they went when they read about how happy their dog is where they are. This book is so comforting for parents as well. But beware: I sob every time I read this book with Jude. It is a tear jerker.

At the end of the day, you will know what is best for your child and this experience has the ability to bring your and your children so much closer as they learn from you how to process grief and allow themselves to feel sadness.

Mikayla Obermeier
I’m a follower of Christ and a passionate lover of Disney (a major understatement). I love writing, roller coasters, new adventures to far off places, my whimsical mug collection, Harry Potter, fashion, video games, the pumpkin patch, sushi, Marvel, getting lost in fictional worlds, cruising in my green Jurassic Park jeep wrangler, the sun peaking over the mountains on a chilly morning and most of all my sweet little family. I’m a SAHM living in Olathe. I’ve been married for 7 years to the love of my life and best friend Brian who is an electrical engineer at Burns & McDonnell and is part time with the Air National Guard. We met at our church back in 2012 and dated long distance for about 3 years after he moved to KC for his job. I moved to KC to be with him after our wedding and the rest is history! We LOVE being parents to our sweet, big-hearted, hilarious son Jude, who is almost 4 and his little lover of a brother Hank, who's almost 2. I’m all about genuine connections, authenticity and sprinkling some magic into everyday life. Follow along with me @kctothekingdom on Instagram and over on my blog where faith, life and magic come together!