A pet’s death is very often the first experience that a child will have with dying and death. A healthy and honest approach to the management of this grief and bereavement is very important for future experiences to be positive whether they involve other pets or human family and friends.
Obviously our pets’ lifetimes are much shorter than ours – only about 2 years for a mouse, and about 10-14 years for our canine companions. Therefore we have a wonderful opportunity to teach our children about mortality and the fact that all living things have different lifespans, some very short and others long. Lifecycles naturally have a beginning and an ending – death may be celebrated just as much as birth and new life.
It is important to spend time talking with your child about lifecycles and the processes of birth and death. Listening patiently and answering difficult questions are all part of it. It is important to become informed yourself, so that you can pass on the facts. Children do best when told the truth in clear, correct language about what is going on. This also can avoid confusion or mistaken beliefs – a child’s imagination may actually be much ‘worse’ than the reality. The proper use of terms and language also avoids confusion or mistaken beliefs – for eg when explaining that a pet has died, it is best to use the words ‘dead’ and ‘died’ rather than euphemisms such as ‘passed away’ or ‘gone to sleep’ even if you feel the child is too young to fully comprehend the notion of death. It can avoid potential fears from developing for eg a child may become frightened to go to sleep or in one case that I remember a child was required to have a general anaesthetic. She was told that she was being ‘put to sleep’, and was subsequently terrified that she was going to die and not come back to see her loved ones.
Explaining the scientific difference between being alive and being dead can also be helpful – just the basics such as listening to and feeling the breath and heart beat, and explaining that this stops when an animal dies. If you don’t feel equipped to do this, then perhaps consider asking your family doctor or veterinarian to provide an age appropriate ‘lesson’ the next time you are visiting. Also there are a few terrific children’s books available to read together – one that I like in particular is called ‘Lifetimes. The beautiful way to explain death to children’ by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen. Published by Bantam Books.
We are in a unique situation with our pets where euthanasia is a legal and humane option, so this means that very often we are responsible for choosing when they are going to die. This can create complications and conflicting feelings for adults and children alike. If euthanasia of your family pet is imminent, then it is essential to prepare for this and to know that to the best of your ability, you have made a kind and courageous decision which has prevented suffering. It is best if you are able to have some pre-euthanasia guidance or counseling from your vet if possible or if not, from a psychologist with an interest in this area. It is good for the whole family to be involved in making the ‘right’ decision at the ‘right’ time and to know what to expect before, during and after the procedure. Consider requesting having the euthanasia done in your home in an effort to make the environment less clinical and therefore potentially less stressful for all involved. Euthanasia literally means a ‘good death’ and if you can help the children focus on this time being positive and meaningful, it will assist greatly.
Rituals play an important part in any death, and having a planned euthanasia enables everyone to say their farewells. Even although this is usually very, very sad to experience and even a painful time for many parents to observe their children during this process, saying goodbye and then remembering them, is a way of honouring the pet and channeling the grief.
Make sure that children have the option of being involved in any funeral arrangements, funerals and memorial services, but do not force them. There will be decisions to make such as whether to cremate or bury the body – again talk about this with honesty and discuss the practicalities. I remember one family with three young boys who helped their father to dig a hole for their pet dog with great gusto. It was actually a wonderful and positive day with everyone pitching in and then finishing with a sunset funeral.
Encourage children to write letters or draw pictures to put in with the pet. Decorate the body with flowers or handpaint a plain wooden coffin or cardboard box expressing the love and joy the pet has brought to the family. Looking at photos or compiling a photoalbum is a great way to remember. Lighting candles or making a simple shrine can be very healthy – maybe include a treasure such as some of the pet’s fur that you have trimmed off and saved in a special bag or container.
Charlie & Lola - I Will Not Ever Never Forget You Nibbles
Most children do seem to move on quickly and may even ask to get another pet straight away, as shown in the Charlie & Lola episode below. This is perfectly normal for youngsters whereas most adults generally need longer to grieve and may not be ready to get a new pet for some time.
In the episode ‘I will not ever never forget you Nibbles’ Charlie & Lola’s mouse dies. It celebrates the joy of children having pets and deals with when their pet dies. It has been recommended by a qualified Early Childhood Educator and may be helpful for your family.
My Best Friend Veterinary
Home Euthanasia Services
ABN 36 139 219 999
PO Box 1149
Blackburn North 3130
Australia P 0422 953 441 E email contact