It was my fault. I ran inside to get snacks, kids strapped in the car, and left the back door open. I figured the gate to the rest of the house was shut. I was wrong, and my German Shepherd, Pandora, and our Boxer, Mingus, darted by me and out the door. They ran into the road, and I heard a sickening crash. Luckily, the kids didn’t see. Mingus needed serious surgery to fix her face and remove teeth. Pandora died almost immediately.
I was devastated. We all were. I felt horrible.
My oldest son was 4 at the time, and I found myself tongue-tied. I had to tell him something obviously, so I decided to go with the truth: Pandora had died. He knew that his friend’s grandmother had just died, and because we had talked about death then, Blaise understood that Pan wasn’t coming back. We cried together.
It’s devastating when a pet dies. It’s hard on the adults, who, like me, may have raised their pet from a puppy or kitten. They may have rescued him or her from a bad situation. Our pets are family members; we love them. They comfort us in our sadness and celebrate in our joy. Their sudden loss can be gut-wrenching, especially if it’s the result of a prolonged illness, especially if we have to make the decision to put the pet to sleep. But when children are involved, losing a pet becomes even more complex and emotional.
The loss of a family pet may be a child’s first encounter with death. This is always scary because we might not be sure of what we think happens after death or how we feel about it in general, and yet we have to explain it to a small child. If you have religious beliefs, you may want to incorporate them here, like how we told Blaise that Pan went to heaven to be with people there like his best friend’s grandmother. You can also incorporate the Rainbow Bridge mythos, which is popular among animal rescues and basically features your pet waiting for you so you can go into heaven together. James Dickey’s poem “The Heaven of Animals” is also an appropriate way to help your child process what has happened.
Regardless of whether or not you believe in an afterlife, experts say it’s best to tell the truth: “calmly explain what has happened,” recommends KidsHealth, using simple words and no euphemisms. If you tell your child that “we lost Lucky last night,” says Karen Stephens in When a Pet Dies, a child could “think Lucky is still alive, but lost in the neighborhood.” She reminds us that children will be very concerned about why, how, and where a pet went when they died, and we’ll have to be prepared to answer those questions over and over again. If there was a lingering illness, they advise you tell your child that:
– the veterinarians have done everything they can
– your pet would never get better
– this is the kindest way to take the pet’s pain away — the pet will die peacefully without feeling hurt or scared.
If you euthanize a pet, you should include your child in the decision, Stephens says. Explain the process behind euthanasia, that it won’t be painful, and ask the child, if it’s appropriate and the vet will allow it, if they’d like to be present when it happens. This can provide a valuable sense of closure. Most experts recommend never using the words “put to sleep” to describe euthanasia, as it might make the child afraid that if they or someone they love goes to bed, they won’t wake up again.
Make sure your child knows they aren’t responsible for their pet’s death. Kids, Stephens says, do not grasp cause and effect as we adults typically do. They may think that the pet died because they were bad or because they didn’t take good enough care of it.
Finally, it’s important to listen. Children will all process grief in their own ways, mixed with anger or fear, for example. They may miss special rituals they had with their pet: rocking their cat, for example, or feeding their dog treats. It’s important to acknowledge those losses and to even share your own. For example, I missed cuddling with Pandora. Counselor Diane Matheny says, “”I find it helpful to have them tell me where they think their pet is now. […] Through this creative exercise, I can find out if there are aspects of death that are frightening to the child, and address them.”She calls this exercise “a helpful way to introduce information and ease fears when a child loses a pet.”
In the end, it’s important to tell the truth, keeping it short and simple: Give an explanation about where your pet is and what death means, and overall, listen to your child. Give them space to talk, to air their grief, and to process the death of their beloved pet. You may even find that it helps you to deal with your own sadness. You’ll get through it together.