Helping Your Child Deal with the Loss of a Pet

vet kid and sick dogUnlike many years ago, when most pets lived outside, today many of our pets become members of the family. When most of us have ‘had enough’ with the world, it is our pets that give us solace. And for many kids, their pets are their best friends in the world….always there to ‘lick their wounds’… both emotionally and physically. So how do you handle it when that ‘best friend’ passes away? There are many answers to this question…. And of course, how it gets explained varies greatly on many things…. From the family’s religious beliefs, to the age and maturity level of the child and how much they can comprehend. Let’s face it… no one really completely understands death, except that it happens to all of us.

I. Age Appropriateness I want to emphasize caution here – be careful how you phrase things to very young children. For example, many people do not realize when you tell a young child that ‘the dog got sick and then he died’ that many young children suddenly become very fearful every time they or someone they love gets sick… often they become afraid that they will die too… like the dog.

II. Prepare them in advance Barring sudden unexpected deaths like from an accident, many times with illness or advanced age, you can tell when your beloved pet is nearing the end of their life. This is probably the best time to sit down and talk with your children about it. Here are some key steps that may help:

  • To begin – Talk to each child individually. Many times, when you bring all the children together to talk about it, the younger ones look to the older ones to judge how they ‘should’ be feeling or reacting. By taking each one individually, you allow them to each have their own feelings.
  • Next you can discuss how dog years are different than human years…. That each human year is about 7 years to a dog. To make sure they understand this, you can say something like, “So if Max is 10 years old in human years…. How old is he in dog years?” Once they come up with the number 70, then you can say, “That’s pretty old right?” Now you can go into how he may not run around as much as he used to, he isn’t as active as he used to be, many dogs get very white in the face as they get older, etc. Now you can go on to talk about what a great life he has had with them, remember activities you all did together like a camping trip or a hike, or fun tricks they may have down, remembering when he was a puppy, how easy or difficult he was to train….. etc.
  • This is the point where you bring up that although they had a great life together, it is nearing the time where he may die.. You can ask your child what they understand about death, and really listen to what they say. You might be amazed at their answers.

I once saw a post where a family pet had passed away, and while the family sat around crying about why it is so unfair that pets should die so early, and questioning why this is, it was a young child who answered, “I know why….. it is because we are all put here to learn how to live a good life, and to be kind and loving…. Dogs already know that, so they don’t have to stay here as long.”

  • It is important that you do not hide your feelings from your children. Let them know how you are honestly feeling… using specific feeling words like ‘sad’ or ‘angry’ is much more helpful to a child than generalized words like ‘upset’. This allows them to relate to your feelings, and also to help them identify their own.
  • It is also very important to remember that all children grieve differently. My friend’s dog had recently passed away, and when I was talking to my friend about it, and how her 7 year old was doing, she told me, “I’ll tell you… it was the weirdest thing! For three days after the dog died…. Nothing. Not a tear. We buried her in the yard, and did a little service, and both of her friends cried… but from her, NOTHING! I started to worry! Then all of a sudden, when my husband came to pick her up from school three days later, she saw him, and started crying hysterically!!”

III. If you are considering Euthanasia for a dog that is nearing the end, again, be careful of the words you use You want to avoid telling younger children that ‘the vet will give him a shot to put him to sleep” or ‘He went to sleep.’ Kids take things very literally, and you don’t want them afraid when they have to get a shot at the doctor’s office, or create future fears of going to sleep and not waking up again. Instead, you can tell them the that doctor thinks their pet is in a lot of pain, and since they love him so much, they don’t want him to suffer anymore. So the vet is going to give him some medicine that will stop all of his pain, and let him slip into death peacefully. With older children, it is okay to let them decide if they want to be there to say goodbye while the injection is given… but I would not just depend on age, I would also assess maturity level and their basic understanding of the process before giving them that choice. I also want to stress here that if your child does want to be there, and you feel this is okay, make sure you and your child are fully prepared for what to expect. Talk to your vet about it, and explain that your child will be with you, and you want to walk them through each step of the process in advance.

IV. I think it is also very important to ask if they have any questions When I mentioned earlier that religious beliefs may come into play; it is because children often ask what happens after they die. Be honest and open with your child, and share with them what YOU believe happens…. Whether it be that you believe they all go to Heaven with GOD, or if a relative passed not too long ago, you can say that they will be together, but make sure you are not making up answers to appease them. If you are not religious, and you personally are not sure what your beliefs are on the subject… it is OK to tell them that… that you just don’t know. They will appreciate and respect your honest answers.

V. After the fact After your pet has died, or been put to sleep, let children be involved in the ‘saying good-bye’ process. If you are burying them, let them be part of the service. If you are planning on cremating your pet, let them be involved in choosing the urn, or the spot to place the ashes. And most importantly, don’t avoid the subject of their pet afterwards. You don’t want to make the pet’s name a taboo subject because you are afraid bringing it up may bring up unpleasant feelings for you or them. Let them know it is okay to talk about their feelings and memories by doing so yourself.

It is never an easy or a pleasant subject to discuss death, but how you handle this may determine how your children deal with loss in their future. Death is a part of life… so the more honest and open we discuss it with our children, the more prepared they will be when it actually happens.

The Rainbow Bridge

The Rainbow BridgeJust this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge. When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge.

There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable. All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigour; those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by.

The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.

They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent; His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs
carrying him faster and faster. You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again.

The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.

Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together

Author unknown

About the Author

I trained as an EMT in NY, than recertified in Atlanta. I loved being an EMT and was involved with it for several years. I worked on the “Rainbow Response Unit” at Egleston’s Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, and when not on a call, worked in the PICU and NICU, which was both a blessing as well as a heartache because I learned and saw so much. Helping to create a child safety seat for ambulances was my way of making sure children who were already compromised health-wise, would not be put in any more danger. When I realiized I could no longer be an EMT due to medical reasons, I found an alternate outlet for my desire to nuture and protect; I became a dog trainer...something that was always a second love and passion for me. Now, whenever possible, I combine my passion for children and canines by working to make the world a safer place for both. Suzanne is a member of the PedSafe Expert team


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