The death of a pet opens the door to discussions with your toddler about the subject, but don't expect him to fully understand that his pet won't be coming back. Your toddler's lack of concern about his pet's absence might disturb you, until you realize that he truly doesn't grasp the significance of death. When explaining the death of a pet to your toddler, it's important to be honest, choose your words carefully, and expect some misunderstanding and confusion.
Tell the Truth
It's never a good idea to lie to your toddler about the fact that your pet has died. Don't tell him the pet went on vacation or moved to another house. Avoid phrases like "went to sleep" or "said bye-bye and won't be back." Because both going to sleep and saying bye-bye are common experiences in a toddler's life, you don't want to make him fearful about either one. Don't hide your own feelings of sadness; your toddler needs to know that it's normal and acceptable to feel sad or angry after a loved creature dies. Help your child put his feelings into words by saying, "You miss Fluffy" or "You're feeling sad and a little mad; me too."
Toddlers won't grasp the finality of death all at once. It could take weeks of asking where the pet is before he drops the subject. Trying to tell him too much will confuse him; not telling him anything might make him feel like death is a taboo subject. Let him take the lead by encouraging him to ask questions at his own pace rather than piling information on him. Mention your pet from time to time so he knows it's okay to talk about. Leaving out pictures of your pet encourages future conversations when he's had time to realize that the pet isn't coming back. Depending on his age, a toddler might feel like his pet died because he did something wrong; reassure him that it's not anyone's fault that the pet died.
Talking About the Afterlife
Your religious views will dictate how you approach the issue of where your pet is after he dies. You can talk about the animal's spirit living on in your memory if talking about an afterlife isn't something you're comfortable with. Talking about a pet's death often opens the door to other questions about death -- whether people die and what happens to them after death.
If you're burying your pet or saving his ashes, you might debate about having your toddler watch the burial or what to explain to him about cremation. If you have a tank full of goldfish, pet death might be a fairly common experience at your house, but you still might not want to flush the fish down the toilet in front of your toddler. Fortunately, goldfish are small enough to bury in the yard and memorialize with a pile of stones or small sticks. Whether or not he sees the burial, if your toddler knows you buried your pet, he might act out the burial process with his stuffed animals or toys in the coming weeks. This is a healthy response and a way for him to assimilate what's happened.
Encourage your toddler to remember your pet by drawing a picture, telling a story about the pet or sharing pictures of him with the pet. Creating a memory box with pictures, your pet's collar, a lock of hair or other memory-evoking items can be a way to preserve your pet's memory for your toddler.
Suzanne Robin is a registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology. She also has extensive experience working in home health with developmentally delayed or medically fragile children. Robin received her RN degree from Western Oklahoma State College. She has coauthored and edited numerous books for the Wiley "Dummies" series.