The death of a family pet is often a child’s first experience with death and loss. As a result, it is an important time for adults to help children express grief in emotionally healthy ways, free of shame or embarrassment. The following guidelines are designed to help adults assist their children when a pet dies, or euthanasia is anticipated:
Honesty is the best policy.
Be truthful with the details of events and be mindful of your terminology. Avoid phrases like “put to sleep,” which can be frightening and confusing to children. Some examples of phrases to use instead: “Fluffy has died,” or “Because Fluffy can’t get better, we are going to help her to die, because we love her.”
Involve children appropriately in aspects of decision making (illness, end of life and memorials).
Children are often involved in the daily caretaking routines of their pets. It is only fair that they are included when their animals are ill or dying. Let children know that the animal’s illness or death is/was not their fault. When given a choice to be present, children who are well prepared usually can handle the intense emotions and medical procedures that accompany the euthanasia. Due to short attention spans, it can be helpful to have a friend stay with very young children while older family members visit with the pet to allow each person to say goodbye. Involve children in planning a funeral/memorial service/memorialization of the pet, where they can share favorite stories, memories, and pictures of their pet.
Invite children to share their thoughts about death.
Remember that children generally do not understand the permanence of death until age seven or eight and may need reassurance from adults. Children don’t usually possess the same verbal abilities as adults for expressing their grief. Providing alternate routes for children’s grief can be very helpful (having children make drawings and poems, expressing emotions through play, and being actively involved in memorialization). It is not uncommon for children to ask the same questions over and over again. It is also typical for children to ask seemingly morbid questions about the pet’s body and body care. It is critical to answer all of a child’s questions as honestly as possible without going into graphic detail as their curiosity is natural and expected.
Be a role model for their grief.
Allowing children to see their parents’ emotions helps them understand that each member of the family is important and irreplaceable. It also gives children permission to express their feelings openly.
Discourage “replacement” of pets.
There are no correct time limits for bringing a new pet into the family, but parents should sensitively explain to children that it might not be helpful to rush into getting a new pet. It is important to take time to remember their friend who has died and to have time to think about what kind of new pet they may want to add to their family. When most family members feel ready to adopt a new pet, children should be actively involved and included in the selection process.
Erin Allen is a counselor with Colorado State University’s Argus Institute. Argus provides free grief counseling relating to pet loss and support to those making end-of-life decisions for their pets. Founded in 1984, their unique program is one of the longest standing, most comprehensive programs of its kind. Their clinical counselors offer support to people who are facing difficult decisions regarding their pets’ health and help them manage the challenges of caring for a sick animal. For more information, please visit Argus Institute.