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My parents had a certain genius about pets. They waited until I was 10 years old to get a family dog, and they got a puppy. Translation: I was old enough to handle pooper-scooper duty, and when our pup reached the end of her long life 16 years later, I was able to work out my own feelings about her dying.
But not all families can time it like that. The loss of a pet is often a child’s first experience with death, says Myrna Milani, author of The Veterinarian’s Guide to Pet Loss and a veterinary ethologist specializing in the animal-human bond. Parents are left to figure out how much information to share with a child, and when. Honesty, Milani says, is the best policy.
Below are some expert, effective ways to help your child prepare for and cope with the loss of a family pet:
Skip the “We sent Fluffy to live on a farm” story. “I hit my mom up about having told me that until the day she died,” Milani says. “Kids are remarkably resilient. Don’t lie to them.”
Give a straightforward, simple explanation. “Children younger than age 5 or 6 generally can’t grasp the finality of death,” says New York City child-and-adolescent psychotherapist Ari E. Fox, LCSW. Reassure a child that while the pet is very sick now, she will not suffer once she has died.
Help your child comfort his dying pet. Encourage your child to feed the pet a favorite meal, sing him a song, draw a picture for him, or spend time alone with her pet. “This will help create a positive last memory of doing something special for the pet, as well as prepare your child for the likelihood of the pet’s death,” Fox says.
Make the decision to euthanize a pet an adults-only conversation. “No child is old enough to be made to feel responsible for the choice to euthanize an animal,” Milani says. For older children, you can explain that you are thinking about ending the animal’s suffering. Let your child express her feelings about that and ask questions, but ultimately, this must be a parental decision, Milani says.
Think carefully about your explanation for euthanizing a pet. Stay focused on ending a pet’s suffering rather than mentioning an ailing animal’s potty accidents. “We position pets as members of the family,” Milani says, “so it’s natural for kids to think of how their parents make decisions for the pet as indicative of what might happen to them.” Saying you’re putting your dog down because of too many potty messes could terrify a child.
Ask your child if she wants to talk. Encourage children to talk about their feelings when the pet is very sick, Fox says. Let them know it’s normal to feel very sad when you’re losing someone special, and that it’s difficult to see someone suffer. Young children may need and reminders that it is OK to feel this way. After a pet has died, you can gently ask your grieving child questions like, “What were your favorite times with your pet?” and “What was most special to you? You can also ask children to share a funny story or their first memory of their pet.
Talk about your sadness, too. “That will not only benefit you, but will also help your child feel cared for and supported during their own grief process,” says New York-based pet bereavement counselor and licensed psychotherapist Jane Burbank. Sharing the experience, in an age-appropriate way, makes it easier for everyone to heal.
Don’t mention getting a new pet. “Check that understandable desire to comfort your child [in that way],” Fox says. “Instead, tell your child you know how important the pet was to him and how sad he must feel.”
Don’t give your child false hope. When a pet is hospitalized, says Chicago veterinarian Bruce Silverman, VMD, it’s best not to “hurry the kids out the door while making up stories as to why the pet will have to stay in the hospital for ‘a while.’” Give kids a chance to say goodbye to their pet.
Don’t assume older children will have an easier time coping. From ages 1 to 6, kids spend a lot of time in imaginary worlds, Milani says. “They don’t distinguish things the way adults do. Their stuffed animals may be as important as real animals.” Older children and teens, however, tend to think of themselves—and those they care about—as immortal. A lifelong pet may be closer to them than their human siblings, Milani points out. Be honest with your child about your pet’s dying.
Do decide together how to honor your pet. Some children may want to have a funeral or memorial service; at other times, they’re less interested in ceremony. Making the decision together “gives everyone the opportunity to talk about the love and loss,” Burbank says.
Finally, sharing a book about pet loss with your child may provide comfort and help her open up to you. Check out Saying Goodbye to Lulu by Corinne Demas and I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm. The time you spend reading together may be the time your child needs to grieve the loss of her pet—and its unconditional love.