Explaining Death of a Pet to Your Child
Submitted by Lisa A. Yackel, CVPM, PHR
Hospital Administrator at Case Veterinary Hospital
The story below has been around for several years and has made its circle in Facebook and the internet. Even though I have read it many times, it still brings tears to my eyes. We often have parents that look to us for advice when they have to put a pet to sleep or when a pet dies. There is a genuine concern with most parents that what they say to the child at this sensitive time will be profound in how the child will handle death. If the parent handles the situation conscientiously, the child will be better equipped to deal with grief in the future.
In my own personal experience with my child and as an observer to many families dealing with this situation in my 34 years in the veterinary field, I have found the best advice is to be straightforward and honest. Use correct terminology that will not confuse the child. The word euthanasia conjures up a lot less imagery than the phrase â€śputting a pet to sleepâ€ť. Being less than upfront with the process can also be damaging. Clients will sometimes tell their children the pet ran away or was given a new home. This is something that can particularly come back to haunt the parent-child relationship as the child later finds out what happened and feels angry at the deception.
Our advice is always to involve the child as much as appropriate for their age and maturity level. Discuss the process. â€śWe are going to help Spike die because we donâ€™t want him to suffer. The veterinarian will give him some medication with a shot so he wonâ€™t hurt anymore. Whether you allow or not allow your child to be present during the actual process will depend on the situation and the childâ€™s age and maturity. Sometimes just viewing the body afterwards is all that is necessary for closure.
Allow your child to grieve and donâ€™t hide your own grief from them. Find ways to honor the pet and help along the grief process. Having a memorial, making a scrapbook, planting a tree are all ways that will give a feeling of control to a child. We have a lending library at our hospital that has several books that a parent can read with their child that walks through the grief process.
Death is part of life and oftentimes the loss of a family pet is the first exposure a child has to death. As veterinarians and the healthcare team, we see death on a weekly basis. It may help to discuss with your veterinarian and their team what would be best before the actual euthanasia is planned. They will be able to direct you to websites, books, etc that will be helpful with this difficult process. As this story illustrates, children are very resilient and can handle death when given the right opportunity.
Being a veterinarian, I had been called to examine a ten-year- old Irish Wolfhound named Belker. The dog's owners, Ron, his wife, Lisa, and their little boy, Shane, were all very attached to Belker and they were hoping for a miracle.
I examined Belker and found he was dying of cancer. I told the family there were no miracles left for Belker, and offered to perform the euthanasia procedure for the old dog in their home. As we made arrangements, Ron and Lisa told me they thought it would be good for the four-year-old Shane to observe the procedure. They felt as though Shane might learn something from the experience. The next day, I felt the familiar catch in my throat as Belker's family surrounded him.
Shane seemed so calm, petting the old dog for the last time, that I wondered if he understood what was going on. Within a few minutes, Belker slipped peacefully away. The little boy seemed to accept Belker's transition without any difficulty or confusion. We sat together for a while after Belker's death, wondering aloud about the sad fact that animal lives are shorter than human lives. Shane, who had been listening quietly, piped up, "I know why."
Startled, we all turned to him. What came out of his mouth next stunned me. I'd never heard a more comforting explanation. He said, "People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life --like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right?" The four-year-old continued, "Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don't have to stay as long."
Live simply. Love generously. Care deeply. Speak kindly. Profound!