When to Tell Four-year-old That Pet Has Died

Updated on December 03, 2012
S.B. asks from Encino, CA
24 answers

Hi Moms -
Our beloved, 20-year-old cat died on Thursday night. Obviously, at that age, it was not unexpected. My husband and I had a disagreement about when to tell our four-year-old about the cat's passing. I felt we should tell him as so as practical - namely, this morning (we didn't want to tell him before school on Friday and Friday afternoon got too busy); my husband felt we should wait until my son mentioned the cat himself (even if that was a week from now). My husband felt that this would help "distance" the event, and make it easier for my son to process. I felt that no matter when we told him, it would still be "fresh" for him and still be difficult. My husband relented, and we told my son tonight. Obviously, it was really difficult and there were a lot of tears and a lot of questions. My husband now thinks it was a bad idea to tell him now, and that we should have waited. My question is this - when a pet dies, when have your broken the news to preschool aged children? If you've waited until the kids brought up the subject up themselves, was it an easier discussion?

Finally, on a related note - during the discussion, my son asked repeatedly if we could get another cat tomorrow that looked just like the one we lost and call him the same name. Clearly, he wants to replace the cat that passed, which makes perfect sense for a child this age. My next question is - what do you say to a response like this? We told him that we weren't getting another cat, since we still have one cat. But he was pretty despondent about it. How have you explained to a preschooler that you don't just replace someone that you love?

What can I do next?

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answers from Baton Rouge on

Kids need to be told about deaths when they happen.
I was nine when my grandfather died on Xmas Eve. My parents waited until after Xmas to tell us. Not cool.

6 moms found this helpful


answers from New York on

Didn't he miss the cat Friday morning? We always told as soon as pet passed. In a few days he will move on and forget about replacing cat.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Sacramento on

I think you did the right thing. Now you have time over the weekend to grieve as a family before going back to a busy work/school week.

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answers from Seattle on

When I was a child, we took our pet's death very seriously. My mother would approach us with red rimmed eyes and tears streaming down her cheeks. She'd say, "So and so died." My sister and mother and I would hold each other and we'd wail and scream until there were no more tears for us to cry.

My father would take the animal's body to the grove of oak trees on the top of the hill, and he'd dig a large hole with the tractor. As a family, we'd have a little ceremony for our pet who would have already been placed in the hole my father dug. My father would stand still and hold a shovel, his large hands moving just a little. When my favorite cat died, he said, "I don't like cats. But she was a good cat." And my mother and sister and I poured stories out and cried some more.

It didn't end quickly or quietly either. We'd drag to school and come back to sleep and cry. We'd draw pictures of our passed pet. My sister would let me crawl into her bed, if I had a nightmare. But when it was through, we'd really have grieved, and we were resolved and had accepted the death. I wasn't afraid of death, as a child. As an adult, I fear what my death would do to my family, but I don't actually fear death itself. I think my childhood helped me in that.

My children haven't had nearly as many experiences of death as I had by their age. But when they happen, I don't hide them or protect the kids from their grief. We go into it. And we do it together. And we come out the other side.

I'm so sorry your kitty died. I'm sure this is terribly sad for you, since your cat has been with you for so long. Many hugs. It sounds like you know exactly what to do. Trust your gut. You've got this.

8 moms found this helpful


answers from Anchorage on

I told my kids right away when our beloved bunny died and they helped us give him back to the earth. Death is a part of life. You are correct in saying that no matter when you told him it still would have been fresh for him either way. Ask your husband how he would feel if someone he loved died and everyone waited a week or more to tell him about it?

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

as soon as it happens.
waiting wouldn't have changed the fact that a beloved pet died, or made it 'easier.' it's not easy, nor is it supposed to be. dealing with the death and burial has always been a family event here. no hiding or delaying.
it's so sweet, and very normal, that your child wants to 'replace' his friend. i think you're handling it very well to refuse to do it. just keep reiterating in simple terms that a new pet will not BE your old one, even if they look alike. and that all of you need some time to be sad for your old cat. she was loved and deserves some mourning.
the most important thing is to listen to him, and let him know he's being heard. 'i know, we'd all like it if a new cat were just like bootsie. if we could get a new kitten and it would feel like she were back with us, we think it might make us feel better. it's hard to miss her so much, isn't it?'
he's less in need of explanation than just to have his sadness heard.
i'm so sorry for you all.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Detroit on

Feel free to share my story with your husband:

My daughter is 5 and we just lost one of our dogs (and more unfortunately, her favorite of the 2)...she had become ill very quickly and within 24 hours we had a decision to make. It was clear she wasn't going to recover and there wasn't anything more we could do. I had told my daughter that morning that I was going to take Sophie to work to see if we could help her, but made it clear that she was very sick. When DD asked if Sophie might die, I told her I hoped she didn't but I couldn't make any promises. The truth of it was that she needed to be euthanized but I wasn't about to try to explain that part of it to her. It happened to be on a Monday so she was at school all day, my husband picked her up from after-school care, and then when I came home, she noticed right away I did not have Sophie with me. She asked if she was okay, and I told her no, I am sorry sweetie...and then before I could go any further, she asked, "Did Sophie die?" and I had to tell her yes...and she broke down and cried about it and I held her and hugged her and told her it was okay to cry and to be sad.

So you did the right thing by being honest and straightforward with your son. Children need to learn that death is a part of life, and can't be shielded from the reality that nothing lives forever. Like others have said, I am not sure when your husband thought it would be a good time to tell your son...if not right away, then when? How is delaying it supposed to make any of it better? Why wait until he's noticed the cat actually missing? If anything, it makes it seem like the cat, and losing him, wasn't that important - as in, "Oh, yeah, and by the way, the cat died."

After my daughter was done crying, and we had dinner, we were able to drive up to the vet hospital where I work and visit Sophie one last time. My husband didn't think it was such a good idea but when I asked DD, she said she wanted to. So she got to see Sophie wrapped up in a blanket, just looking like she was sleeping, but understanding that she was not. And she was fine. She petted her head a little, said her good-byes, and that was that. I think it helped with closure, and really process what happened better, rather than hiding it from her. Sometimes kids are stronger and braver and more resilient than we give them credit for.

If DD asked me for another dog that looked just like Sophie that would still name Sophie, I would just gently remind her that that wouldn't mean it was really Sophie - but that when the right dog came along at the right time, we would have another dog to love and be a part of our family.

I am sorry for your loss...(((HUGS)))

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Boston on

Let me add my voice to the chorus of "NOW not later." Daughter #3 was 4 when our very dear golden retriever passed away. We were very careful with her, trying to explain it in terms she could understand. Like Ephie D, I believe you share these things as a family, grieve and get through it as a family.

Like yours, my husband tries to protect our children and feels that putting off sorrow is the way to go. I remind him we're not raising children, but adults and that our job is to help our children learn how to deal with all life has to offer -- and that includes death.

A point I haven't seen mentioned here: telling your child as soon as you can do it properly and gently reinforces that your son can trust you, that you will be honest with him. Waiting until a child asks can inhibit that trust. From a child's perspective, if you weren't forthcoming with this information, what else are you hiding? This probably won't be an issue for a 4-year old, but the little guy won't be 4 forever and will always remember how his parents deal with family issues.

Way to go, mama. In my thinking, you've got this.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Boston on

Death is part of life. It's not something we can avoid or sugarcoat. And it's always easier to deal with as a unit, whether that unit be family, friends, co-workers, etc...If you had waited to tell your son it would have sent him a message that he wasn't important enough to share the loss with.

As far as getting a new cat, tell him what you just told us, simply that you can't replace someone you love. You can however take time to mourn, and then eventually honor the loss of one cat by adopting a new cat.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Minneapolis on

What does your husband think he would have been protecting him from? Being sad, being human, grieving the loss of a beloved creature? Grief, loss and sadness are all a valuable part of the human experience. I am glad you told him when you did, waiting would have been a big mistake. I believe in being up front and honest about death.

In terms of getting another cat. You make it sound like it would be wrong for the family to replace that cat. There is no right or wrong here. But have an open conversation about how different people respond differently to loss. Let him talk about how he feels and how getting another cat might make him feel. Explain that for you it would be too hard to have a cat that looked the same and had the same name. Let him know how you are feeling about the loss. Come up with a plan together that has empathy for both approaches to the loss.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Los Angeles on

I think you did the right thing by telling your child now.
I would not wait for the child to bring up the subject of "where's the cat"
before telling him.
I would tell the child right away. I do think it was best you didn't tell your
son before school.

It's never an easy discussion whether you wait or tell them right away. The point is to acknowledge their feelings, loss & sadness. Also, it doesn't make it any easier by letting the child bring it up. It's not determined by that. You did the right thing. Letting too much time pass w/o saying anything lets the child live in fear that things can leave their life at any time w/o any warning. That can take away some of their security. It's best to explain the cycle of life.

Of course, he cried. He lost his pet. He's sad. Tell your husb that that is a normal & healthy reaction.

It's okay for him to be sad right now. It's his way of grieving. You need to let him "feel" his sadness for a short time.

As far as explaining that you don't replace/go out & get another pet is to say it exactly like that. Kindly. lovingly w/hugs explain that you still have another cat that needs your love & attention and that some day you may get another cat if it presents itself.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Green Bay on

I am sorry, but I completely disagree with your husband and think waiting to tell your son is absolutely awful. I think it was okay to wait to avoid the school "rush", etc. but to wait longer than that, in my opinion, is not the way to do things. Children will learn throughout their lives that death is a part of life. Any time it happens, the subject of death is NOT going to be an easier discussion so don't question when the "best" time to talk about it is. There is NO "good" or "easy" time. There are going to be tears, there are going to be questions. If you don't want to get a replacement, you simply need to be honest with your child and say that you are not going to get another cat right now. I am sure he is a typical 4 year old - if he wants a cat and you tell him no, he is not going to be happy about it just if he wanted a toy and the answer was no. Because he is so young, he is going to keep asking. Patience, understanding, and willingness to talk to him about the cat is going to be your best plan. It is simply going to take TIME...

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Dallas on

I'm chiming in a little late here.....

Your child is 4 and not oblivious to what is going on in your family. Do you really think he hasn't noticed. Your hubby needs a wake up call. Don't assume he has not noticed the car is gone..... Maybe he is wondering when you plan to tell him.

Issue #1... he questions his trust in you right now for not being forthcoming from the beginning. It does not benefit him to shelter him from any bad news that comes your way. He needs to learn how to mourn, adjust, etc.

WOW, I am a believer in open communication and I would have been upfront with my child from the get go. Belive me, you want those lines of communication WIDE open when he is a teen!!!

Establish HONEST and OPEN communication now and you will more than likely have a better relationship with your child because he knows hecan trust you. Right now... that trust is questionable.

As for replacing the pet.. that is a HUGE decision and a HUGE committment of responsibility for the next 20 yrs or so. Before you do that, make sure you and your family are ready for the new pet and responsibilities that come along with it.

Good luck.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Sacramento on

You did the right thing by telling him, imo... And you're right, he is trying to replace the cat by wanting another~totally normal. You can say that you are still really sad about the death of your cat and that you aren't ready to get another one.

Did your son know that the cat was ill?

We had a cat that died 3 years ago. My kids were 4 and 6. They knew that she was old and sick (she had an inoperable tumor). And they knew that she was going to die, but they didn't really understand it all. Many times even when you know cats are sick, they still are living a pretty good quality of life and it isn't time to put them down... but when they get really sick they seem to do it quickly. One day we knew that it was time to put our cat down and we called the kids in to say good-bye to her.

Death is a part of life.We talked a lot about the circle of life and how our cat was now in a different place where she wasn't hurting anymore. She had a good life with us and we loved her, but we wouldn't have wanted her to be hurting or sick anymore. Now she lives in our hearts and memories.

My kids still like to look at pictures of that cat. In your case, I would find one or some photos and put them in a frame for your son. He'll have lots of questions and probably for a while. It's good to answer them honestly and simply according to whatever your beliefs are.

I'm sorry for the loss of your furry friend~ sending a hug...

I just wanted to add, not to tell you son that your cat "went to sleep". Kids don't understand that concept and it can cause confusion and fear about they themselves going to sleep or you going to sleep and not waking up. Also, he may have questions about the cat getting sick and dying and worry that if someone gets sick (with a cold or minor illness) that they will die. We just told our kids that there were different kinds of sickness, and kitty had one that couldn't be fixed.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Redding on

Don't take this the wrong way, but I'm wondering how your child wouldn't notice on his own that the cat was gone, for maybe even a week.

My kids were raised around every kind of pet. Not just mine, but my mom's and my sister's. Horses, goats, chickens, rabbits, birds, fish, dogs, cats....

I think it's best just to be honest and calm and divulge the loss right away.
The sad thing is that animals do not live as long as humans. It's a part of life. It's hard to lose a pet we love, but we have to think about how lucky we were to have them and love them for the time we had.

I am not a fan of immediately replacing pets. I've been pretty fortunate, and our animals have lived long lives. There really is no "replacing" them.
I think it's perfectly fine to tell kids that maybe someday you'll get another cat (or whatever), but it won't be the same. Fluffy was special and we'll always love her. But, we can't just go get another Fluffy.

I really think this is one of those things where your kid will be okay if you're okay. You had a 20 year relationship with your cat. Your little one didn't. The cat was a part of his life, to be sure, and loss is never an easy thing to get figured out, but your son is young and his sadness won't last nearly as long as yours.

Don't go overboard trying to protect him. Try not to transfer your own emotions onto him.

He'll be fine.

I'm sorry for your loss. I've been there.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Kansas City on

We told our dd right away when our dog died. She knew something was wrong, the dog woke up one morning paralyzed from the waist down, and we had been telling her for a little while that our dog was old and wouldn't live forever. She was 5 when the dog passed this summer, and it was sad, and still is. Especially when we pulled out all of our christmas stuff and our dog's stocking and ornaments were in there. It gets better, but be prepared for sadness. We shouldn't shelter our children from normal parts of life.

I would say no to getting another cat exactly like the first with the same name. It's not fair to you guys and it's not fair to the cat. By all means, if you want another pet, go to a shelter and adopt one, but not as an exact replacement for the one you lost.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Los Angeles on

I don't think you made a mistake to tell him when you did. And what if he had asked two Mondays from now? It would have ruined his school day then. I don't think that kind of avoidance is healthy or appropriate.

As for asking for a new cat, I would tell my 4 year old that it wouldn't make her feel better. That its okay to be sad about the cat and its not fair to a new cat to adopt him/her before we are done grieving for our old cat.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Los Angeles on

I would have told when he got home from school - after he had a minute to re-group and have a snack.

Don't cause drama. Just merely state without tears and sadness in your voice, "Cat was very old and he happily went to sleep and then died."

My kids lost a friend. He was 7 and our son was 4. We went to his funeral and he saw him in the casket. We didn't want to take him, but he insisted on seeing his friend. We explained that his body was there, but his soul was gone and he's not breathing, so they are going to put him in the ground and it doesn't hurt him." Our son was fine with the viewing. I was a mess. It's really how you prepare them. We are matter of fact with our kids. Circle of life. My parents didn't prepare me for my grandfather's death because they couldn't deal with it. It still hurts.

I'd let him replace the cat...I mean, if I actually had a cat. I can't have animals. They die too quickly...although in your case - 20 years! Still, I can't have something close to me dying every 7-15 years. Breaks my heart. Anyway, let him get a new cat and maybe call him the same name or something really close. He needs that. If he were in high school, I could see talking him out of it, but this is how he is dealing with it.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Hartford on

I think that your plan of action was the correct one; to tell sooner rather than later. Death is not something to hide from children. Now is when they start to learn about and form their ideas about death. It's better that they learn to grieve properly and not learn that it's something to be hidden or shameful or creepy. That it happens to every living thing.

It's appropriate for your son to be despondent, and it's appropriate that he would want to stop his less-than-pleasant feelings. I wouldn't call the feelings that are not happiness "negative" because they're not. They're just not happy, and we still need to feel them and process them.

All that to say that I think YOU are handling the situation properly. It's also all right for your children to see that you're sad about the cat passing away because he was a valued family member. Let your son know that being sad and grieving is perfectly all right, and missing the cat is natural. When he asks for a new cat, I would tell him "no" since that's your plan. I wouldn't get a new cat in order to keep anyone from being sad but honestly, if you feel like the family needs a new furry friend it would be all right to rescue another cat/kitten, keeping in mind how your surviving cat might feel about it.

Also, keep an eye on your surviving cat in case s/he is having a hard time with the loss. Give extra snuggles and love for a while. It's going to be rough for her too.

Oh yes, and be sure to tell your children's teachers. They should know about changes like this.

I'm very sorry about the loss of your kitty.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Spokane on

i have never sheltered death from my daughter. she has gone with me to put my cat down and watched the whole proceedure. i explained it and told her it was ok to be sad and cry if she needed to.
you did the right thing telling him. its better to get it over with then relive the grief of loosing a pet later on. as far as getting another cat (i see its no for now) that choice is up to you no one can tell you and your husband the answer. you still have a cat at home and that pet is also grieving the loss of its companion. just take it one day at a time and your son will be ok :) maybe find him a stuffed cat that resembles the lossed one :)


answers from Boston on

Kids have a very hard time dealing with change or transition. This is the same when they lose something-like a toy, or something much more personal. I know when my son's guinea pig passed away, he wanted to replace him right away. Having something there constantly , is very hard to get used to it not being there. We helped him by having a picture of Max next to his bed. It definetly made things easier. He still could look at the picture, and it made him feel better. Max was in his room in a cage, so that is hard to get used to not seeing a cage with an animal in it.

In time, we did get him another guinea pig. Probably 6 months later.



answers from Washington DC on

when they're 14 - before that the cat went to a retirement farm to slowly play with yarn and get massages...



answers from Kalamazoo on

We have only had fish die, and they die frequently. If my daughter sees one floating, she will say, time for a flushing... Can we go get a new fish? Im not sure how she would do if it was our dog or cat, but I think telling a child the truth simply and promptly is always the best choice. Im not sure what to say about him wanting another cat, because if ours died, we would probably go get another one. Sorry to hear about your cat.



answers from Los Angeles on

As soon as the adults stop crying about the death. Don't delay.

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