Tears filled my eyes as I watched the veterinarian end the life of our 18-year-old cat, Callie. Insisting on being present, 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 our children, who would dearly miss her.
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.
School-aged 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 8 years old when Callie was euthanized, and wanted to be there for the duration, but it can be traumatizing for a child to watch the final procedure.
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 for them to part for the last time. It often works best to explain what will happen and then allow your children time to cuddle the animal and say goodbye at home before you leave alone with the pet for the veterinarian’s office.
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 OK to be sad about her dying.
“Pets are members of our families and when our pet dies, our daily family life is changed,” says Kris Palazzo, veterinary hospital manager. “Every circumstance is different, but it’s important to allow a child the chance to say goodbye to their pet, if possible.” Palazzo also said if pets are cremated, the ashes can be returned to the owner as a keepsake, if the family desires.
Pet owner and mom of two, Bridgette McNabb, agrees.
“We had gotten our dog, Suzie, at 6 weeks of age and she had been in our family for 13 years,” says Bridgette. “My husband, Mike, and I knew her days were short, so we started talking to the kids about Suzie not being with us much longer. The day Suzie was to be euthanized, we brought her in, told the kids what would be happening, loved on her, took pictures with her, and said our goodbyes through lots of tears. Then, Mike took her to the vet. Our last memories at home — with Suzie licking on the kids — were the best.”
Allowing the children special time with their dog on her last day of life was a beautiful gift the McNabbs gave to their children.
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.
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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 of five children in her blended family. She ministers to stepfamilies through her website, www.steppa
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