Besides dealing with the loss of your companion yourself, if you have children living in your home, one of the most difficult things you will have to do is help them through this loss. Often, it is their first experience in dealing with the loss of a loved one.
Tailor your conversations to their age and maturity. Sometimes a clear, straightforward explanation will be enough for them to understand and start the healing process. Children express grief differently than adults due to their shortened attention spans and varying levels of understanding.
If your pet is very old or has been struggling with illness, you might want to consider preparing your child before your pet’s death to ensure they know that it is coming. Before euthanasia, you may want to explain to them that it is the right time to say good-bye.
Some recommendations from the Argus Institute for helping children through pet loss include:
Be as honest as possible. Avoid euphemisms such as "put to sleep" which can be confusing to kids.
Though as a parent you want to protect your child from pain, it is best to not lie about the death of a pet.
Recognize that a pet's death is a significant loss and should not be minimized. It is an important time for parents to teach children how to express grief in emotionally healthy ways.
Discover what your child is thinking. Be open and receptive to questions and concerns they may have. Encourage them to ask the veterinarian questions.
Young children may mistakenly believe that they are somehow responsible for their pet's death. Talk openly about this and assure them this is not so.
Involve children as much as possible in decisions surrounding the pet's illness and death.
During euthanasia, it can be helpful for your child to have a choice with regards to being present or not. If they do not want to be present for the actual euthanasia, sometimes it is helpful for them to view the body afterward for a sense of finality or closure. With other children, you may feel it is better to have them say good-bye beforehand and not see the body afterward. Trust yourself in making this decision.
Every child's relationship with a given animal will be different. Do not assume that the child's reaction will be the same as yours.
Parents are encouraged to involve their children in a good-bye ceremony and in memorializing the pet. Our Memorial Ideas page may provide you with inspiration.
Share memories and stories of the deceased pet and don't rush to try to replace the lost pet.
Should My Child Be Present For My Pet's Euthanasia?
We are asked this question quite often. Remember that you know your child better than anyone else and there is no one right or wrong answer. Each child is unique, and each situation is unique.
We can say, though, that in making this decision, it is important to also factor in your needs as adults who are also about to experience a significant loss. Our natural tendency as parents is to sacrifice our own needs to focus on our children. Depending on the age or maturity of your child, you may decide that it is better for your family, as a whole, for very young children to be cared for by another trusted adult during the process, so that you can have some private moments to honor your bond with your pet. In other cases, particularly with older children, you may decide it will be best for your child to be present at that moment to say good-bye. Only you know what will be right for you and your family. We will support you whatever you decide, and are accustomed to talking to children of varying ages.
Recommended Books for Children & Pet Loss
You may find that reading books together may facilitate an open discussion with your child before and/or after the loss of your beloved pet. We have compiled a list of books that are appropriate to help children deal with pet loss, and keep most of these with us to loan out to our clients who have small children.
Our Grief Resources page lists books that we recommend for children and adults.