by Angela Gartner, NE Ohio Family Magazine.com, Posted: July 2009
At age 4, Christian Knight had his first experience with death. His mother, Danielle Knight, found his fish floating upside down in the small aquarium in their home. To ease his distress, Danielle explained to her son that his fish had died and was not coming back. Whether your child’s pet is a fish, dog or cat, the death of a pet can be traumatic. Helping your child understand how to deal with his or her grief is important.
Death is not an easy notion for a child to understand, especially when a close member of the family, like a pet has died or is dying.
“It is important to understand that the period of time from birth to old age is much shorter for pets than for people,” says Dr. Carol Osborne, D.V.M., holistic veterinarian in Chagrin Falls.
The developmental age of the child and the situation surrounding the pet’s death are factors for a parent to consider when talking with their child about a pet’s death.
Tell the Truth
The age of the child will determine how he or she understands death.
“Children from 2 years old to 5 years old might not understand the pet is dead,” Osborne says. “Children 8 years old and up, in many cases, do understand that death is irreversible.”
“(Younger) kids can’t wrap their minds around the concept of death,” Knight says. “(Parents) have to explain it in the simplest terms.”
Parents should not hide the reasons why the pet has died or use phrases that might confuse or create fear within the child. Commonly used phrases are “The pet went to sleep” or “We put the pet to sleep” or “The pet went away.”
“Children define death based on their own personal experiences,” says Dr. Margaret Richards, PH.D., A.B.P.P., pediatric psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital.
Osborne says how a parent explains death to a child may frighten them. For instance, if a parent tells a child “Fluffy went to sleep and never woke up again,” she said, “the child might think he or she might never wake up again.”
Richards suggests using terms such as the pet got very sick or the pet died and its breathing or heart stopped. In addition, try not to overwhelm the child with too much medical jargon.
“Be open and honest, “Osborne says. “Explain to the child exactly what happened in basic age-appropriate terms.”
Euthanasia and Pet Loss
The family may have to make the difficult decision to euthanize a pet. This procedure is commonly done when the pet’s quality of life is deteriorating due to illness or injury.
Osborne recommends that parents help the child understand the veterinarian’s involvement and process of the procedure by having a family meeting.
“Include the children in the euthanasia decision,” Osborne says. “Help your child understand why euthanasia is necessary, (for example) the pet is not enjoying life.”
In addition, this will help to answer questions and help them discuss the final goodbyes and memorials.
Richards recommends using phrases such as, “giving a pet a special kind of medicine to take the pain away” or “help the pet to die or stop breathing” rather than “giving the animal a shot, “ which may create fear at the child’s regular immunization visits.
Based on age-appropriateness, give the child a choice if they would like to be present at the scheduled euthanasia. Richards suggests children might have a distorted picture in their head of the actual procedure. Allow the child to ask questions that will clear up any concerns.
Osborne says, if the child is present and wants to say goodbye to the pet once the pet is euthanized, it is important to let them.
“Encourage (the child to) see the pet after he or she has passed. It reinforces reality (of the situation) and removes the mystery and fear of death.”
In addition, Osborne recommends parents, “explain to the children it is OK if they don’t want to be present, it won’t hurt the pet’s feelings.”
Instead, allow the child to express their feelings about the pet and to say the final goodbyes before and after the procedure.
“The most important factors are to be open and honest with age-appropriate explanations and help your child understand why euthanasia is necessary,” Osborne says.
Grief and Aftermath
The common stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The process of grief is different for each person.
“Not everyone goes through the stages and not in order,” Richards says.
The key to helping your child through the grief is to provide open communication. If the child is displaying extreme grief signs, you may want to seek professional help by speaking with a counselor or pediatrician. Richards suggests the warning signs include exhibiting more behavior problems, withdrawal, not processing feelings or excessive crying, making comments about wanting to die or be with the pet.
Osborne recommends letting others in the child’s life know that the pet has died such as teachers or close relatives to help provide support.
Rituals of Goodbye
A part of the healing process is to honor your pet before and after the death. Talk with your children about how they would like to honor their pet. Families can have a funeral or, if you do not have the pet’s remains, a family memorial service at a special place, which allows each member to reflect on memories and feelings regarding the pet’s life and death.
“The family can celebrate the pet’s life by creating a memory box, scrapbook or draw pictures of the favorite memories,” Richards says. “Have a balance of mourning, saying goodbye and also celebrate the positive memories of that pet.”
Angela Gartner is a freelance writer who lives with her family in Northeast Ohio. She is still dealing with the loss of her beloved Scottish Terrier, Jock, who died last July.
Dr. Carol Osborne, D.V.M., Dr. Carol’s Pets & PAWWS, LLC., 953 Bell Road, Chagrin Falls. 440-287-6787, www.carolonpets.com
Dr. Margaret Richards, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., Pediatric Psychologist, 216-445-2450, Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, 9500 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. www.clevelandclinic.org
View local listings of pet support groups, counselors, cemeteries and crematories at www.pet-loss.net/resources/OH.html
Pet Loss Support Hotline - The Ohio State University Companion Animal Listening Line – 614-292-18