Losing a pet is a painful and devastating situation for families, and it may be especially confusing for children, ER Veterinarian Dr. Desiree FitzGerald outlined a few ways that parents can help in today’s veterinary blog.
Emergency veterinary professionals often face the difficult task of helping people say good-bye to a beloved pet. These painful circumstances vary, it may be a tragic accident, old age, or advanced illness. There are times when humane euthanasia is the best decision for the pet.
Regardless, this is never an easy situation. Pets serve as family, friends, and loyal companions—all rolled into one. Added to that, each person in the household shares a unique relationship with the pet. Whether running partner, watchdog, companion, or playmate, it’s not uncommon for people in the same household to respond differently to the loss of a pet. One particularly difficult situation for parents and caregivers is supporting a child following the loss. For some children, this may be their first experience with death, and the pair enjoyed a day-to-day, close relationship.
One common dilemma for parents is determining if their child should be present for the euthanasia. This is a personal decision, one with which your family veterinarian can help. Ask him/her their recommendations based on the symptoms and condition of your pet. There are situations where the euthanasia can be difficult or traumatic; following an emergency, sudden tragedy, or event where the pet has severe visible injuries, or is suffering from a condition that alters a pet’s behavior (seizures, severe breathing difficulties, etc.) In these situations, your family veterinarian may recommend that adults relay the passing of the pet to the child. If desired, families may opt to visit for final good-byes after the pet has passed.
This extremely personal decision rests with individual families. Ultimately, parents know their children’s temperament and maturity and can determine if a child(ren) can process the complexities of the situation.
Often, following a pet’s passing, parents may not know how to support a grieving child. In addition, adults are experiencing their own grief, and it may be easy to overlook a child’s feelings. Awareness of your child’s emotional state, additional patience, expressing love to your child, and showing affection—all of these are some simple measures which are always appropriate in these circumstances. Consider alerting other caregivers of the pet’s passing, such as teachers, coaches, and adult friends who can offer support during this difficult time.
There are some creative outlets for grief that can memorialize a beloved pet. Children may write a letter to the deceased pet, draw a picture, or make a scrapbook, or plant a tree in honor of the pet. If a pet is cremated, children may help with creating a special place for the remains to be displayed, along with small tokens or gifts. If ashes will be scattered, children may be invited to attend and assist with this special memorial.
Certainly, allow children to grieve in their own way, some may be outwardly emotional, others will remain stoic, and some may not initially acknowledge the loss at all. Emotions may not surface immediately, parents and caregivers may find tears and sadness much later as the realization of the loss becomes more tangible. The death of a pet may bring up additional questions from the child about death in general, where the pet is, euthanasia questions, etc. This is a good time for a family discussion on your beliefs.
If your senior pet is showing significant signs of old age, and this difficult decision is in your families’ future, some preparation for young people may be helpful. Discuss the situation openly with your child. He/she can come to understand that their furry friend is in pain, unable to enjoy life and that medications are unable to heal or provide relief, etc. This preparatory conversation can provide some peace for your child when the difficult decision must be made.
Another challenge people will face, is when they should adopt another pet. This is a personal choice—one that is different for each family. Younger children tend to be ready for a new pet more quickly than older children. Tweens and teens have numerous cherished memories of the pet recently lost, and they made need time to grieve before they are ready to bring a new pet into their home and hearts. The best advice is to have a family discussion and ensure that everyone is on board and ready for the responsibility of adding a new pet to the family.
WestVet offers emergency veterinary care 24 hours a day, 365 days a year; if your pet is experiencing an emergency, come directly to the hospital.