Pets are valuable family members that provide love and attention, companionship and joy, and make the most accepting friends. I remember my German Shepherd x Labrador, Heidi, running around my parents’ garden with me, lying down on the grass, letting me fall asleep on her chest, waiting patiently for me to wake-up before jumping up to run around madly together again. I don’t think one of my preschool friends would have been that patient… I also remember that when she died, it left a big ‘Heidi-shaped’ hole in my teenage chest – she’d been my companion my whole life.
When a beloved pet dies through accident, injury or illness, it can be devastating to the whole family, sometimes even more so to children that have a particularly special bond with their pet. And, it’s natural to want to protect our children from grief and sadness, but dying and death are part of life experiences and ultimately are unavoidable. If we are able to help our children through the process with gentleness, honesty and kindness, most are able to move through the grieving process and work through their feelings. Very often, the loss of a pet will be a child’s first experience of death and grieving, and learning these skills will help them deal with similar losses later in life.
Broaching the subject can be really hard for some parents, especially if a pet has died suddenly. Try to be as honest as possible without overloading your child with too much information. Think about his age and target your explanations to his level. Explaining to a three-year-old “Puppy got in a car accident and got very badly hurt. The vet did all she could to help him but he couldn’t get better. I’m sorry buddy, Puppy has died” is more manageable and understandable than “His lungs collapsed and he passed away”.
Confusion and guilt
Sometimes the big emotions felt by children when a pet dies lead to a tangle of confusion and guilt. Try to avoid saying something like “Puppy went away” or “Puppy didn’t like being here anymore, so he left” as your child may hang on to the hope that they may some day be reunited. Worse still, he may believe that he was responsible and experience feelings of guilt that he caused the pet to leave – “If only I had been kinder to him, he wouldn’t have jumped over the fence and got in a car accident”. Being open and honest encourages communication which is necessary for children to process those feelings and allow you to clear up any misconceptions that they were responsible in some way.
Allow your child to ask questions
Very often this will guide you as to how much information your child is needing in order to start processing the loss. They may ask the same question several times – try to be patient and explain again if needs be.
By showing your child that you’re sad and allowing them to express their sad feelings, you allow them to feel safe and know that feeling sad and missing someone is a normal, healthy way to move through the grief process. It allows them to feel that they’re not alone and that someone else understands the big feelings that may be overwhelming for them to deal with on their own.
Prepare your child
If you have a pet that has a severe illness and is likely to pass away in the near future, discussing its condition will allow your child to observe its illness and better understand the dying process, with the inevitable death being less of a shock. This preparation teaches them that the feelings of sadness are normal and to be expected. If your pet is going to be euthanased and if you feel it is appropriate for your family, you may want to offer your child the choice of being present. This can offer a child a chance to say goodbye and give them closure which may otherwise be difficult for them to grasp. However, not all children, or parents, are able to manage the experience or their emotions in such a situation, so do whatever you feel is the best for you and your family.
Offer your child choices
Offer them the chance to draw a picture or write a letter expressing how they feel about their pet. Offer them opportunities to memorialise them; you may have a ceremony to bury your pet or take turns sharing special memories. You may like to write a prayer or make a scrapbook adding photos and stories of fun times together.
Having been involved with many “End of Life” decisions involving pets, I am very aware of the variety of ways that people come to terms with dealing with pets with terminal illnesses, serious injury and unexpected death. Just as adults have different ways of expressing their grief, children will have just as many. Try not to put pressure on children to talk about their grief if they’re not ready to, but do let them know that you are always there when they need you. Contact your child’s teacher and let him or her know what has happened. Having understanding at school provides your child with an extra shoulder to cry on as well as someone to monitor their emotional wellbeing and alert you should they not be coping.
If it has been a while since a pet has passed and/or your child is struggling to come to terms with their death, it may be time to contact a professional counsellor or child psychologist. If your child or you need extra support contact your GP or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.
Dr Bronwen Bollaert is a veterinarian with 14 years experience working with a variety of domestic and wild animals, and has a special interest in Behaviour Medicine. Dr Bron is the director of Healthy Pet Mobile Vet, (www.healthypetmobilevet.com.au) a veterinary house call service dedicated to bringing quality vet care to well-loved dogs, cats, exotic pets and birds in Brisbane’s northern suburbs. She writes a blog, “Sniffing It Out”, with regular posts for veterinary advice for caring pet-parents. Dr Bron is involved with PetPEP, an Australian Veterinary Association initiative aimed at teaching children and the community about responsible pet ownership, safety around pets, healthy living and the welfare of animals. She’s parent to two short-legged people and one fur-baby.