Let me start by saying, I am sending you love. If you are reading this post, it likely means you are preparing to say good-bye to a beloved pet-member of your family. Right now, years of love are coming out as grief. I want you to know I have been there, and I get it.
I am a pet owner, veterinarian, and mama. I have stood on both sides of the table and have a unique vantage point when it comes to this topic. I would love to share with you my experience and personal life lessons when it comes to navigating these waters with children.
The story of Athena. Well the story of saying goodbye to her. She was a 16-year-old lab mix. She came into my life when I was 16. She saw me through prom, college, marriage, 3 moves, and two kids. She was the best. I wanted her to live forever. She didn’t. Not only did I love her deeply, my children also loved their ‘Theena’ deeply too. That meant that I not only had to manage my grief, but I had to help them manage theirs as well. I told them clearly in the days and weeks before that she was sick and her sickness wasn’t the kind we could fix. I explained we were controlling her pain, but her body was failing her.
My oldest had a better understanding of the situation. He had been through this a few years prior with our sweet Kato (the big yellow dog). My littlest, though, was navigating new waters. The day came that we had to say goodbye. Her body had failed her and choosing to let her go peacefully was the last gift I could give my sweet girl. The kids loved on her. We all cried. We gave her cheeseburgers and put her on her bed in the backyard. When it was time, I told the kids that they needed to say goodbye. It was time for Athena to pass. She would no longer be with us. Daddy would give her an injection and she wouldn’t be in pain anymore. She would pass away peacefully. They said their goodbyes. I gave them the option to stay while she passed, neither wanted that and both went inside. My husband and I said our goodbyes to her and while I hugged her, my husband did his veterinary job and euthanized her. I am grateful that we are both veterinarians and he could be the one to give the injection. I couldn’t do it myself. I needed to hold her. She passed peacefully. My husband carried her body to the car so we could take her to get cremated. As he did my littlest came out, devastated to see that his dog was dead. Dead. I never used the word dead. I used a lot of words in preparing them, but never dead. I regret that.
If you ask that same child today what euthanasia means, he will clearly tell you that it means peaceful death. I made sure to not make the mistake of being vague ever again.
I want to let you know that everyone’s journey is different. Your parenting styles are yours and you rock at them. Ultimately, you know your situation and your children best, so follow your instincts on how to handle your unique situation. I just want to share with you some things I have learned, both as a veterinarian observing and as a mama living through it. Given all of that, here are my three tips for handling pet loss with your kids.
Don’t be vague.
First, don’t be vague. As adults we love to use terms like “put to sleep” or “cross the rainbow bridge”. I told my own son that we were saying goodbye and our dog was going to pass away. Pass away. I know now my child thoroughly did not understand pass away. Don’t make my mistake. Death is part of nature. All living things die eventually, yet the details of death can be abstract and confusing if not approached head on. Combine compassion with biology to help your child understand what is about to happen.
Those are some big feelings.
Second, give them space to grieve in whatever way they need to. Losing a pet is big. It is deep and painful and often a child’s first exposure to that kind of loss. Those are some big feelings. Make room for them. It may come in big alligator tear, or deep silence. They may feel anger, or some may appear to have no reaction at all. All of these responses are totally normal. Let them know that, because they may not understand that grief can look like a lot of things. Give them a journal to write or draw in, a place to express themselves and keep memories of their beloved pet. I love the idea of letting them create a pet memory book to help turn some of those painful thoughts of loss into sweet memories of what was.
Allow for a special goodbye.
Lastly, let them say goodbye. If you are euthanizing your pet, you may be wondering if your child should or should not be present for the actual moment. That, my friend, is a very personal decision. My advice is talk to your veterinarian about their procedure and determine how you feel about your child being present. Euthanasia, by definition, is a painless death. It is something that I, as a veterinarian, take extremely seriously and I take every precaution to make sure it is the smoothest experience possible for the pet and for the people saying goodbye. Bring treats if your pet is still eating. Your kiddo will enjoy a last happy moment. Bring your pet’s favorite blanket. Your child will appreciate that it makes your pet feel safe and not afraid. Be sure to explain to your child, clearly, what is going to happen and when. I find that the when is big. Littles often have only a vague understanding of time and our descriptions can leave them anxious. Make sure they know when it is the final goodbye. Make sure they know this is going to be a peaceful death.
I hope that something in these words has helped you navigate these waters. They are rough waters. I get it completely. I wish you and your family peace during this difficult time. Please know my heart goes out to you.
Some of our favorite books for kiddos going through pet loss.
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Dr. Sheena Christensen is a veterinarian, mama, and entrepreneur. Her and her husband, Dr. J, talk all things pets in their online blog and pet-owner resource site. We hope you join us!