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Explaining the Loss of a Pet to Young Children

We lost a pet bunny while our son was 4 years old.  He never asked any questions and other than a few comments about our Mr. Bigglesworth, it seemed he wasn't concerned with why Mr. B wasn't around.  I was very upset at losing him and I didn't think at our son's age he would understand the concept of death so I didn't bring it up.

I figured out a while later that he did notice Mr. B's disappearance.  While children may not initially talk about the absence of a pet, it doesn't necessarily follow that they have simply forgotten about them.

We had a foster here for only about 2 weeks before the adoptive family was able to pick him up.  Our son had a meltdown.  He cried, he kicked, he screamed, he threw things upstairs when my husband brought him up.  When the poor girl adopting the bunny took him out to the car, our son raced downstairs and to the window to shout out to her to remember to bring him back.  It was utterly heartbreaking to watch.

As our son had only known this bunny for a couple of weeks and it didn't seem that he bonded enough with him that it should hurt him so badly.  I wondered if the unexplained absence of Mr. Bigglesworth may have been a possible reason.  Perhaps he thought we gave our own bunny away as we do with the fosters.

I sought the advice of other Rabbit Rescue foster parents.  I was given many excellent ideas. 


If fostering, we've made sure our son knows the pets are NOT ours.  They belong to the rescue organization and are different from the pets we have that will stay with us.  Although we may love them they will move on to their permanent home and we must let them go.

When we take in an animal we are providing an important component to enriching that pets life.  We are showing love and compassion which lets the animal know they can trust people.  Children should know they were part of that, both with foster pets and family pets.

Pets do not necessarily live as long as we do.  It is important to love them while they're here.  Just because they are no longer physically here, does not mean they are no longer in our hearts and memories.

Much depends on your beliefs and religion.  Most religions, and even people that do not subscribe to a particular religion, would like to believe that we will see our loved ones again in an afterlife.  How you phrase this to a small child will depend on your beliefs but it is a comforting thought.  It can be explained that although we cannot be with our pet now, there are others that need help and a good home so we can help them.

Allowing a child, even a bonded mate, to see a deceased pet or loved one can sometimes help in their understanding.  Whether or not you allow this will depend on your beliefs and the age or maturity of the child.  Sometimes seeing is believing and they may understand more when they see the deceased pet for themselves.

Whether or not they react at the time of the death (or absence), they WILL notice the pet not being there and eventually WILL react to the pain of that absence.

A really interesting way of allowing children to express their grief and loss is to have them make pictures or notes to the pet that passed away, attach it to a helium balloon and release it.  If your beliefs include a heaven above, this can allow children a final goodbye.

Having a burial attended by family can help.  The ceremony can aid in closure.

You can allow children to see you are grieving and missing the pet also.  It legitimizes their own grief.

Your local library will have some books on how to explain death to children.  I read my son "The Fall of Freddie the Leaf" by Leo Buscaglia.

Ask your child what THEY think happened to their pet.  It can give you a place to start the discussion and some insight.  You can also remind your child of all the happy times so you can laugh and recall good memories.

You will probably have several discussions afterwards as they continue to process the information.  Every few days they may ask some questions.  Be prepared to answer them honestly.  It will take a young child some time to come to grips with the loss of a pet.

The poem, Rainbow Bridge, can give some comfort to those grieving, imagining their pet playing with other animals and awaiting their arrival.

On Mr. Bigglesworth's passing we donated a small amount to Rabbit Rescue in his memory.  This helped us and can help a child if they are involved in the donation to help other animals in their pet's memory.





(Our own bunnies that have passed on but are never forgotten.)