When A Pet Dies
Q. Our family dog is very old and having some serious health problems and we do not expect him to live much longer. What suggestions do you have regarding talking to young children about the death of a pet?
Ah, pets. We love them. We care for them. In return, they love us with all their hearts. But they don’t live as long as we do. And when they are gone, we notice what an often surprisingly large contribution they made to the atmosphere of the family.
A. I think you are wise to do what you can to prepare your child, and yourself, for the impending loss of a family pet. The death of a beloved animal is often a child’s first personal experience of death and the mysteries it presents – be ready for a variety of feelings and the many questions your child may have now. You may want to read some of the books suggested below, or find a way to lightly work the subject into a car ride conversation.
The illness of a pet can offer a family valuable opportunities for open caring and the sharing of feelings. Several families we know have turned the dying days of a pet into a time to spend hours (yes, even in this time-starved day and age) or days with family members stationed near the pet, talking to him, making sure he is comfortable, and standing watch together in a long, loving good-bye. These families have made different choices about whether or not to have their pet euthanized, but all of them have been very clear that those days of close caring were a good-bye. This caring and mourning period can bring family members closer, and can sometimes help to heal other issues that stand between members of the family.
If there’s not a family effort to pour attention into caring for the pet together, the death of a pet may momentarily disrupt the child’s sense of safety and connection, and leave him feeling needy or out of control. Children may react to death with sadness, anger, disbelief, a cranky inability to get along with other family members, or even an escalation of fears. Some children hear vets or other adults talk about putting an animal “to sleep” and become uncomfortable at nighttime, or convinced if they go to sleep they themselves might never wake again. Extra closeness and patience may be needed.
Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand
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