Recently a family in my neighborhood faced this difficult situation. Their pet “Max,” was brought to me because of his increased difficulty in walking, a common, age-related condition. After a physical exam and some diagnostic testing, it became apparent that “Max” had a tumor in his abdomen and it had ruptured, causing internal bleeding. While emergency surgery to remove the tumor would stop the bleeding, “Max’s” cancer would likely spread rapidly throughout his body, and chemotherapy wouldn’t help. Sadly, he would die from blood loss in a few hours or, at best, a few months.
With heavy hearts, “Max’s” owners decided to end his life by humane euthanasia. As they were leaving I was struck by the thought that, as hard as making the decision for euthanasia had been, they still had a far more difficult task ahead – telling their children.
Part of Life
Death is a part of life, one in which we will all have to face at some point in our lives. It’s a painful reality that no one wants to dwell upon, and, for pet owners, it comes sooner rather than later that our pets live significantly shorter lives than we do.
As parents, our natural inclination is to protect our children from painful experiences. However, our love for them can often have the reverse effect when it comes to the loss of a pet, unintentionally causing more emotional pain. How and what to tell them, is a common question we as veterinarians receive. The best advice I have is, in a nutshell — Be Calm And Be Honest.
Steps to Acceptance
Let’s Talk: Children are much stronger and resilient than we give them credit for, and we often underestimate how well they can cope with difficult situations like the death of a pet. Parents need to recognize that pets play many different roles in a child’s life – friend, companion, playmate, confidant, and protector. That relationship is powerful and lasting, and, when the bond is broken, their pain can be deep, resulting in feelings of sorrow, anger, insecurity, fear, guilt, anxiety, distrust, and helplessness. Any child who is old enough to have a relationship with a pet is old enough to know when that pet has died or will be humanely euthanized.
Saying Good-Bye: If your pet is older or terminally ill and humane euthanasia is the likely, it is wise to prepare the child in advance. It is better that “they hear it from you.” Your son or daughter should know that everything possible is being done for their pet, but not every condition or disease can be cured. You should prepare them for the impending loss, and offer them the opportunity to say good-bye. Perhaps, allow the child to write a good-bye note or take some pictures of the pet and/or the pet and the child. These photos, along with treasured memories or stories, can be used then, or later, to make a scrapbook that will serve as a physical reminder of pet’s life, for the child.
Stay Calm: Children often “feed” off of how their parents react to a stressful situation. If you’re over-emotional about the loss of your family pet, your child will likely act in the same manner. Save any personal, emotional breakdown for a private moment. It’s OK to be sad and to show your grief, but let your child know that your reaction is a normal reaction when a loved one dies. The example you set in being able to control and explain your grief to them is healthy, and will help your child to not only cope with the loss of their pet but also in future cases of sorrow and loss.
Words Matter: The words you use to describe why your pet needs to be humanely euthanized will undoubtedly vary depending on the age of your child and their pet’s medical condition. In all cases, speak plainly, particularly to young children, and use as few euphemisms as possible. Don’t use the term “put to sleep” with young children. While this can be comforting to some adults and older children, it can trigger anxiety that can have an adverse impact on normal sleeping patterns. Additionally, try to avoid using phrases with younger children such as “has left us,” “we lost,” or “he’s/she’s gone” because they can leave a child to wonder when their pet will return. When their pet doesn’t come home, they may feel abandoned or rejected.
Even if religion is an important part of your family’s life, it’s best to avoid telling children that “God wanted” the pet. This can cause the child to be angry with God or to be fearful of being “taken” next. You should also avoid saying things like “the veterinarian could not save him/her.” This can result in children seeing veterinarians and medical professionals as uncaring or incapable of helping in times of illness.
When The End Comes
The decision as to whether a child is present at the time of humane euthanasia is not clear-cut and will vary with the emotional level of the child. In general, it is my opinion that young children should not be present during the procedure, especially if the parent is extremely emotional. As a parent, you know your child and are best position to make the ultimate decision, but, in my opinion, it would be far better for them to say good-bye at home. The reality of a peaceful death is often preferable to what the imagination a child can conjure up if they’re too involved or poorly informed of the euthanization process.
Coping Activities: Give your child an opportunity to mark the passing of their pet by encouraging positive activities to express their love and to ease their grief. This may involve burying their pet or spreading their cremated remains in their pet’s favorite place. You might also suggest that they create a scrap book, draw a picture, write a story, make a memory box; or plant a tree, shrub or flowering bush to honor their pet. Additionally, allow your child to tell favorite stories about the pet or facilitate discussion by reading stories about pets and pet loss to help them find closure. If you are not sure how your child is feeling, ask them. Answer as many of their questions as possible, but it’s OK not to have all the answers. Your willingness to talk about it and just listening is often enough. Also, where possible, let others know what has happened, including relatives, neighbors, teachers, coaches and friends so they can offer extra support and encouragement to the child during this time of sadness.
New Pet or Not? In most cases, it is probably best not to get another pet right away. Grief takes time to work through, and getting a new pet immediately can suggest to a child that those who die can be easily replaced and that grief is unimportant or unnecessary. Additionally, some family members may be ready sooner than others to get another pet. Those not ready may feel guilty or disloyal to the prior pet and may reject or show anger toward the new pet.
The death of a pet is never easy, especially for children. However, parents and loved ones can lessen their anxiety and sooth the emotional pain of losing their beloved friend. Finally, don’t ever feel like you’re alone. If you and your child need additional help coping with the loss of a beloved pet, visit the resources below for help and advice.
- The Rainbow Bridge
- Humane Organizations: Humane Society or ASPCA
- Association for Pet Bereavement
- Pet Hospice
Local Grief Counseling
- Timothy O’Brien: You Will Always Be a Part of Me
- Wallace Sife, PhD: The Loss of a Pet
- Moira Anderson Allen, M Ed: Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of your Pet
We’re Here to Help!
If we can be of any assistance to you to navigate the loss of a beloved pet, please feel free to contact us at Brook-Falls at any time. We will be happy to discuss any situation with you and direct you when appropriate to those resources that may be helpful to your unique situation.