Helping Children and Companion Pets with the Loss of a Pet
How do I explain pet death and euthanasia to my child?
All children grieve differently, their way of healing after the loss of a pet is a complex process. For many children, the loss of a pet may be their first real experience with death. This is an opportunity to open communication and shape the way they see and understand death. Properly explaining death can help to demystify the concept as well as alleviate possible guilt. Death is a natural and eventual process for all living things. Remember, how a child grieves depends on many different factors including their developmental stage. Depending on developmental stage, you may also need to address a pet’s shorter lifespan than our own. “Many animals have shorter lives than we do. They don’t live as long as people.”
Having conversations about death and emotions surrounding pet loss can help normalize and validate their feelings. It is important to answer all the questions that come up as honestly and plainly as you can, even if they are silly, difficult, or complicated. This is also a good time to find a children’s book that can answer some of the specific questions they may have about death. It is also important to be honest when there are things you do not know or cannot be answered. Some points to consider when speaking with children about death:
- Be honest.
- Use simple and clear words.
- Avoid euphemisms such as “put to sleep” or moved on to a better place”.
- Show your emotions.
Help young children understand why euthanasia is sometimes necessary, in words they can understand.
Old age: “When animals get very old, their bodies wear out and stop working.”
Terminal illness: “Our pet is very sick and there are no ways to stop the disease. Her body has worn out and stopped working.”
An accident: “A terrible thing happened. Our pet’s body was badly hurt and couldn’t be fixed. It stopped working.”
Explain euthanasia in a developmentally appropriate way. Explain that the pet will be helped to die peacefully and without pain.
“When an animal is suffering, we can choose to help them die. It’s a very sad choice to make, but one that we want to think about because we love Fluffy so much.”
“We will have the veterinarian help Fluffy die so that she won’t be in pain anymore. Dr. Smith will give Fluffy a shot filled with medicine that only works on animals. The shot will stop Fluffy’s heart. When his heart stops, he won’t be able to breathe on his own. He will not feel any pain.”
Recommended Readings for Children and Teens:
- Invisible Leash: A Story Celebrating Love After the Loss of a Pet by Patrice Karst
- Where Lily Isn’t by Julie Paschkis
- Saying Goodbye to Your Pet: Children Can Learn to Cope with Pet Loss by Marge Eaton Heegaard
- When You Have to Say Goodbye, Loving and Letting Go of Your Pet by Monica Mansfield, DVM
- Saying Goodbye to Lulu by Corinne Demas
- Stay by Katie Klise
- Deconstruction/Reconstruction: A Grief Journal for Teens created by The Dougy Center
- Healing Your Grieving Heart ‘For Teens’: 100 Practical Ideas Dr. Alan Wolfelt
Explain what will happen to your pet’s remains. If you plan to have your pet cremated, explain that your pet will be taken to a pet crematory, a place where the pet’s body will be turned into ashes. Then your family will take those ashes and (scatter them, bury them in the backyard, keep them in an urn, etc.). Be careful using the words “fire” or “burn” as they can be scary to children. Be sure to explain that the pet cannot feel any pain. If you plan on burying your pet, explain that your pet will be sealed in a box or casket and put in the ground.
“Fluffy’s body will be put in a room that gets very, very hot. This will turn his body to ashes, which looks a little bit like sand.”
“We wanted to cremate our pet so we could always have a way to remember him. We will keep his ashes in an urn, at our house. We can always take his ashes with us if we ever move.”
“We are going to bury our pet in the ground.”
Afterwards, many parents find it helpful to include children in memorial activities. Here are a few ideas you may consider:
- Conduct a Memorial Service
- Have a Bubble Release Memorial Service
- Plant a tree in your pet’s honor
- Create a shadow box containing your pet’s tags, favorite toy, collar, etc.
- Create a picture collage, scrapbook, story, or poem about your pet
- Scatter ashes in a place that was special to your pet
- Journal or draw pictures of your special memories with your pet or your pet’s story
Should my other pets or children see my deceased pet?
Children and pets can and do grieve the loss of their beloved companion animal. It is often very valuable for a child to be present during the euthanasia process so that they have a better understanding of their loss and provides them with an opportunity to say goodbye and start the healing process. Children learn from their parents how to handle stress and grief. You know your child best and ultimately will make the decision you think is right for them.
Pets grieve the loss of their pet housemates, too. We have found allowing other pets to be present during euthanasia helps them to have an immediate sense and understanding that their friend has gone.
This minimizes searching the house and shortens the period of depression that some pets exhibit after a loss. Alternatively, some families choose to bring them in afterwards to say goodbye.
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer. This decision is a personal choice based on what feels right for you, your children, and your pet’s household companions.