How Do You Explain a Pet’s Death to a Toddler?

Pet's Death

Unfortunately, we’re struggling with this very topic this week. 

Our Pet’s Death

A few months ago, Sophia showed interest in getting a pet fish.  We decided to go with a beta fish, since they’re easy to take care of and we could let her start a routine of feeding it and taking care of something, a little responsibility for the two year old.  🙂   She named her, she insisted the fish was a girl… Blue Fish.  Yep, this little lady loves blue.  So, how do you explain a pet’s death to a toddler the right way?

So, Blue Fish joined our family back in September.  Sometimes I ended up being the one to feed her, but Sophia actually really enjoyed her pet.  Unfortunately, Blue Fish #1 didn’t make it past a few days.  Before Sophia even noticed, we replaced with Blue Fish #2, simply because we didn’t know what to tell her.  She never noticed the difference.

Sadly, though, this weekend I found Blue Fish not swimming.  I was a bit sad and knew that Sophia would be too, even though she might not understand why.  Rob and I talked about what we should tell her and really we didn’t know what to do. 

Explaining a pet’s death to a toddler

So, the next day, I took Blue Fish out of the small aquarium and started cleaning it.  Sophia wanted to know when I was going to put the blue rocks back in the tank.  I quit what I was doing and sat down with her.  I told her that sometimes people and animals miss their Mommies and Daddies and Blue Fish missed her family so she went back to visit them.  She was so sad.  She started to cry and said “But I miss my Blue Fish.” 

I was caught off guard.  I thought by telling her a happier version, she would be ok, but she still missed her pet.

So, by trying to save her little feelings, I didn’t at all.  So, after the fact I did some research, which is never a good idea – research should have been done beforehand, I know.

I found that I did it all wrong.  Most experts agree that you should be completely honest {never do the switch-a-roo} and my whole story about Blue Fish visiting her family?  That’s a No-No too.

So How Should I Have Explained Blue Fish’s Death to Sophia?

  1. Be Honest.  Since she’s only 2.5, I should have explained it simply and to the point, with not too much information.  I should have let her ask questions and answered them truthfully and honestly.
  2. Let her talk about her feelings.  Explain that it’s ok to be sad or even mad.
  3. Let Sophia say Goodbye.  Instead of trying to hide the fact that Blue Fish died, let her accept it and tell her fish Goodbye.
  4. Take a Break before getting another Fish.  I immediately wanted to take her out and let her buy a new fish, but I think we’ll wait just a bit before that happens. 

I definitely think that since this pet was a fish, there wasn’t quite a bond that she might have had as if it was a dog or a cat, an animal that she interacts with a bit more.  But saying that, just because Blue Fish was a fish, doesn’t discount Sophia’s feelings either.

This was a real learning experience for Rob and me.  We now know how to deal with situations like this, although I hope they don’t happen often, and I feel better prepared for when they do arise.  I didn’t go back and tell Sophia what really happened, but we will definitely use these points from now on.

I’d love to hear from you – How have you/will you explain a Pet’s Death to your Toddler?

  1. I haven't had to tell my 3 year about death, but I did about our dog running away. She was just under 2 years when it happened. When she see's the igloo, even now at 3, she say's "Juno ran away". We told her the truth. For us though, the idea of running away isn't really comprehensible. Luckily she really never cried, but talks about it a lot.
  2. We just dealt with this subject this weekend. Our daughter already knew that Pepik (one of our tortoises) was very sick...  I explained to her that he was no longer with us (she pointed to him & said "he's right there"), since she loves all thing doctor, at the moment, I told her his heart is no longer pumping.  I was TRYING to avoid the words dead and/or didn't work.  He's dead, I told her.  We took him out and Daddy dug a hole while I continued to TRY to get her to understand that this was not temporary...  When we went to place him in the hole, she suddenly got very concerned about his comfort level in his "new hole home" we lined it with some pet hay (Timothy, not that it matters).  We snuggled him in and went to fill the hole...nope!  He would get dirty!!!  So we put another layer of hay to keep the dirt off of his shell.  lol  After all the production, I asked if she was okay and she said "Yeah" and wandered off to play.  :\  I was actually disappointed it wasn't a bigger deal.  I suppose that's wrong...especially considering he was actually MY pet.  Now.....I just have to get her to understand that he will NOT grow into a "turtle tree" next summer!  *sigh*
    1. Oh, I'm so sorry that you had to deal with this, Diane. It's certainly a hard subject and even harder when things don't go as you think they might. And a Turtle Tree - super cute. ;)
  3. I think you did it perfectly! My daughter was old enough when we got her a fish. She was 4 and already knew about death. Her beta lived for about 8 months. She tortured it, she always put paper and such in his tank. I'm considering getting another Beta but putting it on our kitchen counter instead of her room this time. We had a 47 gallon fish tank that we just got rid of a few months ago because the maintenance was a lot. We had a dog die when she was just shy of 2, but she never even asked about it. We had another dog at the time and I don't even think she really noticed. I think you explained everything just right to your daughter though. Be blunt and to the point and let her talk about her feelings. Loss is normal and we all grieve differently, so it's important to let them express their thoughts! Maybe get her a new fish to help her get over it, but explain that this one will eventually die off as well. Or get a couple hermit crabs, those things live FOR.EVER!
  4. We have a 14 year old dog and I dread the day I have to tell my daughter that he's passed. She loves her dogs and affectionately calls Rex her "old doggy." I do think it's important to let children say their goodbyes and tell them the truth, however difficult that may be. Great post and one that really hit home with me.
  5. I have no idea! I was facing this this past weekend some. Our cat is 14 years old and was having some issues that caused me concern (he's fine though!), but the 4 year old started asking stuff and saying "I don't want him to get old. I don't him to die" All I could say was "I know you don't" I didn't want to get into too much right then. We have talked about getting older and she "gets" death but not really. The thing is I wasn't worried about her. It was the 9 year old, who is a more sensitive sort I was so worried about. I need to find some book or something about this.
  6. I have not had to face that question for which I'm grateful. But it is bound to happen to my grandbabies before too long. I'll have to send their moms over to read they will know what to do when the time comes!
  7. As a young teenager I decided I was never going to lie to my kids about a pet not dying because a friend of my mom had lied to her daughter by buying a replacement hamster so she didn't have to tell her 3 yr old that their hamster had died but the kid knew there was something different about the hamster. When our first hamster died, my oldest was just past 2. We just told her what happened and told her that we could get a new one when our new baby was older (I was 9 months pregnant at the time). She did pretty well; talked about her Geeko {hamster's name} lots but was fine. When The 'new baby' was one and a half we finally got a new Geeko. It died a month after her second birthday. My four year old was a little sad but since this guy wasn't as friendly as her previous one she wasn't as bothered. My 2 yr old didn't really get it at first and kept asking to feed and pet him for many days following his passing. Then all of a sudden she started telling grandparents, aunts, uncles that Geeko was gone and sometimes saying he was dead. Now we are happy to have several imaginary hamsters and birds and one real dog!
  8. My daughter L is almost five now. My grandmother (who she saw several times a week) died when L was about 2.5, and she understood that Great Grandma was in heaven now and she was not sick anymore. That was really her first experience with death. One day we found a dead bird laying on our porch. I have no idea how it died, since we did not have a cat at the time. L was very sad about the dead bird, so we talked a little about death, and the bird being in bird heaven, and we buried it in the woods and had a little funeral for it. Afterwards she brought it up several times talking about the bird and about great grandma. then last summer her hamster died, (she had two, and the mean one is the one that died, so not too traumatic) I showed it to her, and let her pet it, and explained that it had died, she asked if it was in hamster heaven and I told her yes, she expressed sadness, and we buried it near where we had buried the bird. She has mentioned it a few times since then, saying she misses Snuggers, and Snuggers is in heaven.
  9. yup, that's a hard topic to tackle. We've lost 2 out of our 3 cats in the last year. The first one just after Ruby turned 2 and the last one before she turned 3. Both of the cats had been ill before hand. So it was pretty easy to let her know that they went to heaven where they wouldn't be sick any more. I think you have to be sensitive to your own child, you never truly know how they'll react. A couple months are out last cat was put to sleep, I found our girl in tears because she missed her kitty. Sometimes those feelings linger. Fortunately I think little ones are pretty resilient.
  10. My son is only 3 months old and I'm already not looking forward to having to have the death conversations with him. I'm not sure how old I was when I first encountered it (the bunny at daycare died), but I know I wasn't in grade school yet. I remember the fact that I knew where it was buried helped solidify the idea of gone/not alive since I could visualize and grasp that the bunny was in the ground and there forever.

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