One of the most difficult decisions I have had to make in my life was when to terminate the life of a beloved family pet. I do not believe I have cried so hard or fought a decision so much in my life as when my partner and I had to take three of our beloved dogs in and have them euthanized. Even as I write this I realize I use the sterile words, “terminate” and “euthanize” to alleviate the guilt I still carry with me for a decision that was in the best interest of the dogs.
How do we explain that decision to our families? How does one tell a child that the beloved family pet is suffering and the most humane and ethical thing we can do for that animal is to put him or her down? It is a situation that occurs more often than discussed and a topic often left unspoken. In fact, research done by Gage and Halcomb in 1991 indicates the loss of a family pet happens more frequently and is more stressful to parents than children leaving home. And once that decision is made, how do we confront and accept the subsequent grief and help our children do the same?
According to Adele Brodkin, Ph.D., a psychologist and consultant of families and children, “Mourning a pet prepares a child to deal with future losses…” Children want to talk about things that happen; this includes a loss, the death of loved ones and the death of a family pet. Loss also prompts ideas that others may die as well. Allow the child to talk about his or her concerns and ask questions. Being honest with a child is the best route to take when teaching them to say “good-bye.” Therein as parents, educators, mentors and providers of support we can teach children to talk about the pain of loss and confusion of feelings.
In teaching a child about loss the first thing to remember is one should be allowed to feel whatever it is needed. Statements like, “Oh, it was just a hamster…” or “Don’t be a cry baby!” can confuse a child and teach him or her to repress emotions that are healthy and necessary to experience. In addition, it is important for a child to see a parent’s emotions. Allow the child to ask questions about the tears that mom and dad may shed; encourage family members to talk about feelings and memories that come up after losing a beloved member of the family ; that is what a pet is, after all.
The death of a family pet deserves a family ritual as well. However, sometimes it is not possible for us to be with the pet at the time of death. Sometimes they go on their own schedule, without our knowing, and sometimes it is just too difficult to witness and we must stand in the waiting room and wait. But regardless of how we attend, we can provide them with the same love and respect we would for our human friends. The act of allowing them to leave this life with dignity is one such way – remembering those the pet has left behind is another. Some who read this may balk at my comparing a pet’s life to a human life, but for many the family pet was a family member. Embrace that. Whether you gather the kids together to make a ceremony, or write your pet a letter, there are many ways to provide closure. For parents, talking about the process and decision to put the animal down with another adult is a healthy way to get through the grief. For children, discuss with them what it was like to see the animal grow old and sick, in a simple language the child can understand. Be honest about what has happened to the animal – do not avoid the truth! If your child asks about dying, reassure them people live a lot longer than animals. One important thing to remember, says Brodkin: Let the parents take cues from the child with regard to what needs to be discussed. Additionally, comfort the child who needs to grieve, but do not admonish or question the child who shows little or no emotion.
I decided to have my own ritual after losing my 13-year-old dog “Toto.” Shortly after we put Toto down, I bought a rosemary bush. For years we had a rosemary bush in the backyard, and more often than not Toto would come in smelling of the herb. About a year ago, the bush got too big, so we opted to change it out for something less prolific – that bush died about a week after Toto. I created my ritual in memory of Toto – a bush that she loved, and reminds us of her. When I look outside I can see her on occasion, smelling the bush and biting the branches… It is a simple ritual, but it provides a memory that we, in our grief, can hold onto to accompany us in this difficult process. ✿
What can you do when the family
loses a pet? Adele Brodkin makes
the following recommendations:
♥ Do not avoid the truth about the death of a pet
♥ Invite children and family members to talk
about memories through photos and stories
♥ Do not avoid your own feelings about the loss
♥ Allow children to see your emotions and talk
about your feelings
♥ Do not be ashamed to seek outside help if the grief continues for an unusual length of time or if your
child is experiencing changes in sleep patterns,
nightmares, or a change in eating patterns
Two resources for dealing
with the loss of a pet: