Updated: Dec 28, 2021
For many children, the loss of a pet is their first experience with death. Because we often have a difficult time discussing death as adults, it seems natural to want to shield our children from this reality – particularly when our children are close with our pets, and when we ourselves are grieving their loss. However, the longer I work as a veterinarian – and an end-of-life care provider for pets, in particular – the more strongly I wish that more people would involve their children in the end of their pets’ lives, including euthanasia. As a veterinarian and as a parent, here is what I have learned about talking to children about death, and including them.
When we hide this process from our children, we and our children stand to lose so much. We lose the opportunity to teach them how to weather grief before they have to face the loss of a human loved one. We lose the chance to offer them support in their grief, and we take away from our children the opportunity for them to comfort us in return.
Perhaps most importantly, we lose the chance to model our own vulnerability for them. When we approach the loss of a family pet as a family, we show our children that we can survive sad, difficult experiences together. We show our kids it is OK to be sad, that it is OK for all of us to talk about our feelings, and that there is nothing we cannot get through as a team. If, instead, we hide our feelings and shield our children from discussions about death, we teach them that death is taboo. We discourage their questions, and we cut both our children and ourselves off from sharing our mutual support.
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Once our children are verbal, it is absolutely possible to talk with them in an age-appropriate way about death. The key is to be direct, honest, and to refrain from offering euphemisms that are confusing. For example, we often hear people say, “Sorry for your loss,” or talk about needing to “put our dog to sleep”. But when our loved ones die, they are not simply lost or sleeping! These euphemisms can make children feel confused, or – even worse – afraid.
Children need to understand, and so I explain, that:
In most cases, our pets are either very ill, very old, or both, at the time of euthanasia. I will often explain to children that their dog or cat is older than any human family member, and that their pet’s body simply is not working anymore. Your pet can’t get better, I explain, and so the kind thing to do is to help them die without hurting.
I am here to help your pet die without hurting. It is important for them to know their pet is going to die, and that nothing I will do is going to hurt. My own son asked me, a year after our dog died, whether it had hurt our dog to die. Since then, I always explain that – while I do not know what it feels like to die, I do know that, as a veterinarian, I can make it so that death does not hurt.
Our pets do not come back after they die. (Neither do our people.) However, the love we shared with them is ours to keep, forever. My childhood cat, my mom’s “heart cat”, died when I was 14 years old. Twenty-eight years later, I am now 42 years old, and my mom still dreams about her to this day. She has always said that, in her dreams, she feels visited by an old friend.
It is ok to be curious about bodies. Children often have curiosity about their pets’ bodies at the time of euthanasia. They may want to ask what their pet is feeling . . . or touch their pet’s feet or eyes for the first time. These questions are all natural, and should be encouraged and answered respectfully. Similarly, many children have questions about what happens to their pets’ bodies after death. Cremation, the most common form of body care for deceased pets, can be explained simply and truthfully, by saying “we use heat to turn the body into ash.”
Big feelings are normal, and we can talk about them. When someone we love dies, it is normal to feel sad, but also to feel angry, scared, frustrated, or even, shockingly, to feel some normalcy creeping back in. This is a good time to remind your children that there is nothing that can’t be talked about – and that there is nothing you can’t get through together, as a family.
When my dog-of-a lifetime died, my older son (who was four years old at the time), became the first person in my family to become an ally in my grief. We held each other all night after our dog died. Then, within days after our dog’s death, my son was the first among our family to start bringing up good memories. “Hey mom – remember when Diego used to chase me around with a cracker?” he would ask. Over and over again we read the book Love is Forever, by Casey Rislov – and this book helped to draw my son out to talk about his feelings and process his grief.
Grief is a funny thing. It wasn’t until a year later that my son asked me, out of the blue, whether it hurt to die. He was still grieving, still pondering what our dog might have felt at the time of his death. But because we had always talked openly about our dog’s death, he was able to bring it up with me, and gain some peace.
As a parent, you always know your child best – and it is up to you to carefully consider the level of involvement that is right for you and for your children at the end of your pet’s life. But I encourage you not to underestimate your children’s ability to understand, your own ability to be vulnerable with them, or the good that can come of walking through this experience together. If you are uncertain, and would like some support, I am happy to be part of the conversation, and answer questions side by side with you.
Grief is difficult enough, without having to shield our children from death, keep our feelings to ourselves, and move through the early days of grief behaving as though we have not experienced a staggering loss. Peace is what I want for you, for your pets, and for your entire family. When we can be vulnerable enough to speak about death with our children, we open the door to a peaceful, productive grief for adults and children alike.
- H. Howells, DVM