Saying Goodbye: Helping Children Through the Loss of a Pet
This is a difficult blog to write because my grief is so fresh but my hope is that by putting my thoughts on paper, I might help guide another family through the grief of losing a pet. For those that don’t know me, I’m a practicing small animal veterinarian, a mom to three littles and a pet owner who’s lost too many furry family members this year.
I’ve helped more families through the process of humane euthanasia and grief than I care to think about. Each patient and each family is different and each one touches my heart and gives me a different perspective on death and on life. It’s the most important thing I do and some days, it’s a lot of weight to carry. Especially on days when it’s your own pet and your own family that you are helping through the grief.
My three kids range in age between 5 and 10 years old. Unfortunately, our family has a lot of experience with pet loss. We’ve lost three kitties and the best dog ever this year. They each succumbed to chronic diseases or cancer and we had time to prepare for each loss in a different way. Each of our furry family members was humanely euthanized at our home with my children present.
Being a parent means helping and guiding kids through tough experiences and what my family calls Really Big Feelings. Losing a pet is one of those life experiences that includes Really Big Feelings. For most children, the loss of a pet is one of the first experiences they will have with death. As a mom/vet/pet owner, I honestly believe that we need to allow our children the opportunity to experience the whole process of pet loss including euthanasia.
Of course, I am not a child psychologist, even though some days I feel like I deserve an honorary degree for raising three kids. I have, however, had the opportunity to observe first-hand how many children experience death and euthanasia. I have honestly never had a bad experience during a euthanasia with children present. Even really young kids seem to grasp the importance and gravity of the situation. Sometimes, children even act as a source of strength for their parents. I’ve watched a 4 year old boy, console his mother and provide her tissues as they said goodbye to their 15 year old Golden through many tears. I am certain this little guy will be a more compassionate adult because of his experiences.
Pet owners ask me often about the process of euthanasia and whether kids should be present. While each family is different, I recommend that children participate as much as they are comfortable with. I’ve found that it’s often the parents that are more apprehensive than the children and we should allow our kids to determine their level of comfort with saying goodbye. Parents also ask what to say and how to explain euthanasia and death to their kids. They worry about not saying the right thing. I’ve found that often, nothing needs to be said. Just being there and being aware of what the kids are experiencing is enough to help them start to process the loss. In some cases, kids will ask what happens to their pet’s body. I tell them that pets are like butterflies, in a way. When they don’t need their bodies anymore, the leave them behind like a cocoon and their soul flutters away like a beautiful butterfly. Regardless of religious beliefs, kids seem to understand this visualization of transformation into something else, something beautiful.
We also need to give them the opportunity to feel those Really Big Feelings and to move through them at their own pace. Even for me, it’s tempting to side step grief and continue on with life but, as a parent, I’m aware that my kids are watching what I do and how I respond. I try really hard to give myself permission and to allow myself time to grieve. Grief has to be experienced, to be moved through and not around. My kids skip school if they need to. To them, our pets are part of our family and their loss is real. The emotional health of children is just as important as their physical health, so they take a “sick day” to grieve. I also allow them to share their feelings in whatever way they choose. Sometimes, it’s a sudden memory that hits them while in line at Target weeks after the death. It seems that children’s grief isn’t linear; it comes and goes without any respect to a timeline.
If your family is facing the loss of a furry family member soon, I recommend talking with your veterinarian. Each veterinarian practices differently and may have a different level of comfort with children present at a euthanasia, but as a mom, I strongly urge you to consider including your children in the process. My youngest son asked me this week, after my kitty took her last breath in my daughter’s lap on our couch, if other families also said goodbye this way. I laughed a little and said, “No. I don’t think this is typical,” but after thinking about it, maybe it should be.