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.
But before you focus on how to help the kids through this experience, make sure that you take time to talk with your partner or a very understanding friend who is able to listen supportively while you talk about your own feelings around the pet’s death. You may find yourself thinking of other experiences you’ve had with death or even the death of your own treasured childhood pet. The more you can talk these things out and express whatever you are feeling or thinking about the event, the more clear you will be to help your children sort through their emotions and questions.
Many children will use the death of a pet to explore the wider issue of death itself. They may ask if they are going to die. Or, perhaps even more importantly to them, they may demand to know if you are ever going to die and insist you promise never to leave them. Be as gently honest with them as their age allows and give them your attention and reassuring presence as they sort through the many conflicting feelings they will have. Children need to hear that we will do everything we can to stay alive for them, and that we plan to be with them for a long, long time.
Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand
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