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Explaining an animal's death to kids

Parents may find it difficult to explain the death of the National Zoo's giant baby panda to their kids.

Story highlights

  • A pet's death is often a child's first experience with death
  • Preschoolers may need reminding that death is permanent
  • Remembering pets does not prolong the pain

Three-year-old Julian Lomax of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, picked out his first pet -- a long-haired brown-and-white guinea pig -- all by himself.

Snoop's cage was in Julian's room, and the preschooler fed him and cared for him. But a year later, Snoop died suddenly, and Julian was shocked and heartbroken.

Losing a pet might be your child's first experience with death. Here's how to help him through it:

Tell him the truth. Saying his dog was "put to sleep" or "went away" is confusing, not comforting. Better to say, "Rufus died, and that means we won't see him anymore." Be prepared to repeat yourself: Preschoolers need reminding that death is permanent.

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Answer his questions. By listening and responding, you can show you care how he's feeling. Just try to keep your answers short so your child can process what you've said, says Jonathan Pochyly, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

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Reassure and console him. If your child starts to worry about other loved ones dying, you can tell him that most people don't die until they're very old. Pochyly suggests using a ruler to help kids compare the length of a dog's life (an inch) to a human's (a foot). And give him all the hugs he needs.

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Remember your pet. Talk about what you loved about him, draw pictures, and look at photos together. It's not prolonging the pain -- it's a great way to help your child learn that death is sad but life goes on. And when you decide your family is ready for another pet, you can remind your child that it isn't a replacement but a new friend to love.

Totally awkward family pet photos