Tears filled my eyes as I watched the veterinarian end the life of our 18-year-old cat, Callie. Insisting on being part of it, my youngest son, Nathan, clung to my neck. One of my older daughters had already retreated to the car, unable to watch. Callie had been part of our lives for as long as I could remember and my heart was breaking for my children, who would dearly miss her.
1. Discuss death honestly
The loss of a family pet may be the first experience a child has in dealing with death. It’s an emotional event that almost all families encounter and warrants special attention when it happens.
A child’s age determines what level of detail to discuss when a pet dies. A preschool child can’t understand that death happens to everyone as a permanent event. The best approach with young children includes a brief explanation with the opportunity for them to ask questions. Refrain from using the words “put to sleep” or “resting in peace.” These words are taken literally by children and will cause further confusion. A young child might begin to worry that he too will die when he goes to sleep at night or rests at naptime.
2. Prepare for the end
School-age children understand more about death and may want to be actively involved in the last days of their pet’s life. Our son, Nathan, was eight years old when our cat was euthanized and wanted to be there for the duration, but it can be
traumatizing for a child to watch the final procedure.
Jodi, our 16-year-old daughter, wanted to accompany us to the veterinarian’s office and say her ending good-byes there, but didn’t want to watch Callie’s last moments of life. As a parent, you can help your children decide the appropriate way to say good-bye. It often works best to explain what will happen and then allow your children time to cuddle the animal and say good-bye at home before leaving for the veterinarian’s office unaccompanied.
When a pet begins to move toward the end of life, we can prepare our children for the inevitable event. There will still be difficult emotions to combat, but if the child begins the grieving process while the pet is alive, the death feels less traumatic. Callie was sick for several months before she died and we began preparing our children for what would happen. The finality was still emotional, but our children knew what to expect. Afterward, we talked frequently of our memories and let our kids know it was okay to be sad about her dying.
3. Allow time to say goodbye
“Pets are members of our families and when our pet dies, our daily family life is changed,” says Kris Palazzo, hospital manager at Newburgh Veterinary Hospital. “Every circumstance is different, but it’s important to allow a child the chance to say good-bye to their pet if possible.” Palazzo also says that if pets are cremated, the ashes can be returned to the owner as a keepsake if the family desires.
Newburgh Veterinary Hospital makes a pamphlet available for their clients titled, “Helping Children Deal with the Death of a Pet.” They also hold a memorial service once a year in April for the public to attend to help those dealing with the loss of a pet by celebrating the pet’s life and sharing memories with others.
4. Allow emotions to process
The loss of a pet that occurs because of a sudden accident or illness is harder on a child (and you as a parent) emotionally. You will spend more time consoling your child and working through your own feelings about the loss. Children can’t process their feelings like adults do and may resort to acting out or withdrawing as a result of the loss. Encourage your children to express their feelings and be sensitive when they’re feeling sad or angry. Spend extra time nurturing them when possible. And refrain from replacing the pet immediately. It’s important to grieve your loss before attempting to move forward with a new pet to love.
5. Keep an open heart
Losing a family pet is never easy. As parents, we struggle with our own feelings surrounding the loss in addition to helping our children cope. But the loss of a pet offers a great opportunity to begin talking to your child about death, an inevitable part of life. When we explain the process of what’s happening and offer our children a sensitive spirit and a willing heart to help them process their feelings, they will adjust to life without their pet and be prepared to love another pet at an appropriate time.
Gayla Grace is a wife and mom to five children in her blended family. She ministers to stepfamilies through her website.