If You’re Old Enough to Love, You’re Old Enough to Grieve: Children and Pet Loss
Dr. Lianna Titcombe
For children, the loss of their pet is often their first experience with death. If we handle this loss with honesty and understanding, we can help to prepare them to cope with future losses in a healthy way. Children are amazing, intelligent, inquisitive, sensitive little people. They actually know how to grieve better than we do. They are not ashamed of their feelings; they mourn openly, cry freely, and make great use of rituals. They don’t think it’s silly to have a funeral for a rabbit. They don’t live in the death denying society that we do. We could learn a lot from them.
So how can we help children in coping with the loss of their pet?
Be honest with them.
It’s really unfortunate that many parents have a misguided need to shelter their kids from the pain of loss, and do one of the worst possible things they can do: lie to their kids about what happened to their treasured companion. They might say that their cat curled up and died in their sleep or that their dog just stopped breathing one day when they were at school. They might even say that the pet ran away or went to live on a farm. I do understand the instinct to protect our kids and try to ensure their happiness but when a member of their family is sick and dying, they need to be included.
Invite children into family discussions and decision making about the pet. They need help in understanding what is happening to their friend. They need the chance to say good bye. Use real language such as “We need to help Molly to die peacefully”. Don’t say things like “Put down” or “Put to sleep” as this can be confusing to children who are “put down” for a nap. Also remember that animals have a shorter life span that children might not understand. To say that your golden retriever is suffering the effects of “old age” at 14 years could be confusing unless you explain that 14 years of age might be really old for a dog but not for a person.
Allow them to grieve in their own way, in their own time.
It’s difficult to try to sit a child down at a certain time to discuss their feelings of loss. It’s best to let them come to you with their “grief bursts” whenever they may occur, listen to them, hug them when they cry, and let them know it’s OK to be sad and to miss their pet. They may also need help in understanding that they did nothing to cause the death of their pet. It wasn’t because they forgot to feed him one day, or they blamed him for chewing one of their toys. Some children become worried that other family members may soon die and will look to their parents to assure them that this is not the case.
Give them tools to help them with their grief work.
There are many ways that you, as a veterinary professional, can help parents and their children during the loss of their pet. I have created a euthanasia package for families with children. Here is what is included:
- Pet Loss Hand-out (hospicevet.com)
- a) Ten ways to cope with the loss of your pet
b) Ten ways to memorialize your pet
c) Book resources on Pet Loss and Grief (for children and adults)
d) Pet Loss Support Websites
e) Local Grief Counsellors sensitive to pet loss
f) A brief description of the grief process
- Pet Loss Support Group brochure (www.ottawapetloss.com)
- After care company brochure
- A poem printed on cloud paper that includes the pet’s name and date of death
- A satin pouch containing the pet’s fur
- A heart or butterfly shaped tea light candle
- A hand painted river rock with the pet’s name
- A biodegradable balloon with a paw print with angel’s wings and a place to write “In Memory Of” with their pet’s name (www.hometoheaven.net)
- A handmade fleece heart with a paw print
- A children’s scrapbook: I Remember; a book about my special pet (www.montgomerypress.com)
Parents often ask me if their children should be included at the time of euthanasia and I always say yes but I tell them they should ask their kids. Most of them will know how they feel and will be quite certain if they want to be present or not. Children 2 years of age and younger have little concept of death and don’t require the same level of attention. I would still welcome them to be present for the euthanasia if their parents wish, but it is a good idea to have another family member to trusted friend to help with the child so that the parents can focus their love and attention on the pet. As veterinarians we can guide our clients with our professional knowledge and experience but ultimately it is a parenting decision whether or not to include children in the pet’s end-of-life care.
If children are present for the euthanasia, speak to them honestly and answer their questions – and there may be a lot of questions! I remember one little 8 year old boy asking me about the cremation of his cat. He asked: “When you put her on fire, do the bones burn?” I told him that the bones are what is left and that they are ground up by a special machine and that’s what comes back in the urn as ashes. He said “Oh, OK” and was ready to move forward with the euthanasia. His mother, on the other hand, was silent, with a surprised look on her face. I imagine that no one had ever explained the process to her and I was fairly certain that she had never asked.
When parents are unsure, as this may be their first experience in losing a pet when children are involved, they may ask that common question: “What would you do if it was your pet?” Here is where personal stories can help. When we said good bye to our dog several years ago in the back yard on a sunny day, my boys (3 and 6 years old at the time) decided to be there but preferred to be jumping on the trampoline at the time. At one point my older son stopped jumping, came over to say good bye to George, and then went back to jumping. It was a relief to me to be able to look after George but also to include my kids in a way that felt natural to them. That’s the beauty of home euthanasia, but that’s another story.