A few weeks ago, we had to euthanize our oldest dog. While it was a terribly difficult decision to make, it was the right one. He lived a long time. He would have turned fifteen in October, which is a heckuva run — especially for a big Labrador Retriever.
These gentle giants have been as much a part of our family as any person. They served as handrails as my kids learned to walk, step stools when they tried to climb on the couch, and willing play toys when my kids got older. These dogs, like all house pets, have given our kids the chance to see the life cycle of an animal, to understand aging, and now, unfortunately, a lesson in dying.
It’s one of life’s great tragedies that our pets, who ask so little of us, yet give back so much, pass on long before we do. And it’s because of this cruel difference that we, as parents, must explain to our children why the things we love must die. For a lot of kids, mine included, this was their first experience with death. It has been a sad and confusing time.
There are many ways to approach telling your kids about having to say goodbye to a beloved pet and none of them are necessarily wrong or better. You are the best judge of your kids and know what they can — and cannot — handle and understand. It might not be a discussion you look forward to, but talking about confused emotions and sadness is especially important for kids when they are struggling to understand a difficult issue.
Depending on their ages, they may not understand what death means yet. Younger kids, even if told the plain truth, may still expect the dog or cat to come back later. Developmentally, they may not be able to process what death means. For these kids, it’s best to just stick to basics. Say that the pet was so sick, he died — but you don’t need to go much deeper than that.
It’s important to be honest. While it might seem easier to use euphemisms about a pet being “put to sleep,” don’t take that shortcut. Not speaking plainly about what happened can be confusing and even misleading. At my house, we talked about how the dog had lived a long life and that we have done everything we could, working with our veterinarian to make sure there was nothing more that could be done to help him live longer. We talked about how our dog had reached a point where he couldn’t do basic things for himself. In his final week, he could no longer stand on his own anymore and the consequences of this disability. The quality of his life had seriously declined. While he couldn’t talk to us, he likely was in a good bit of pain. By choosing to euthanize him, he was able to die peacefully, without pain.
Your discussion may lead to questions like what happens after we die. Again, be honest and discuss the after-death outcome in your belief system. For my kids, age 11, the death of our dog led to questions about when we, as parents, were going to die and when they, as children, were going to die. I honestly told them that no one knows when they are going to die, but that by making good choices in how we live our lives, we plan on being around for a very long time.
Over the following days, we touched base with our kids — asking about their feelings. As they move through the grieving process, emotions often change in kids (just like adults), which can be confusing. Some kids might want to talk about the good and bad times you had with the pet. Some might express their feelings through drawing or painting. We listened and reassured, letting them know their feelings were normal. We let them know it was OK to be sad and cry, to be scared, or even angry. For kids, that reassurance is often all they need.
It seems like there are as many funerary options for pets as there are for people these days, maybe more. Some families might bury their pet and place a marker, while others would rather leave their pet at the veterinarian’s office and be done with it. We chose to have our dog cremated and we will be putting his ashes beneath a tree we’ll be planting in our backyard to remember him. I like this idea because it gives my kids a chance to help them say goodbye and, like a gravestone, the tree gives them someplace to go when they want to think about the dog.
Finally, some might think that replacing an old pet with a puppy, kitten, or another new animal will help kids get past a death more quickly. However, many experts warn such a fast replacement (especially a look-alike pet) can prevent a child’s grieving process from reaching a full and healthy conclusion. A new pet will bring just as many smiles and as much joy several months down the road.
Losing a pet can be as traumatic as losing a family member, especially for kids. Respect their feelings and allow them to grieve at their own pace. Above all else, just be supportive. Saying goodbye to a pet that might have been a first or best friend for a child’s entire life can be very difficult. Still, children are resilient. They’ll get past it … and so will you.