Kim Marie Labak
University of Illinois
College of Veterinary Medicine
“A pet can be a child’s best friend,” says Cheryl Weber, a client counselor specialist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. The death of a pet can be a sad and confusing time for children as well as a difficult time for parents. Often parents are dealing with their own grief and aren’t sure how to talk to their children about the death of the pet, whether it’s a hamster, turtle, cat, dog, or horse.
Weber says, “The cardinal rule for talking to children about the death of a pet is: be honest.” She says it’s important to let children say goodbye and to express their grief.
When a pet dies, some parents have the impulse to lie to protect their children from grief. They may tell the child that the pet was given away, lost, or went to a farm to live happily ever after. “Adults may lie because they want to protect their child from sadness and hurt,” explains Weber, a licensed social worker. “It breaks your heart to see a child sob, but it’s normal and healthy for children to grieve. When they love a pet and it dies, they need to know it’s okay to cry.”
Weber suggests sticking to the basic, simple truth, using language the child can understand. If you can foresee a death or euthanasia, you can prepare by talking to the children beforehand, explaining, “Fluffy is very sick and can’t get better.” “When she dies, her heart will stop and she cannot walk or play or eat or purr any more.”
Avoid the euphemism “put to sleep” because it can cause a child to be afraid of going to sleep at night. It’s better to say “Because Fluffy can’t get better, we’re going to help her die.”
Statements like these will probably lead to a barrage of challenging questions such as “Why?” and “Where is she going?” Weber suggests that adults try to answer these questions and help children learn that death is a natural part of life. Many pets have short life spans. They get ill, body parts wear out, they get into accidents, and sometimes they can’t be saved. Plus, parents have the opportunity to discuss their spiritual beliefs with their children.
Other suggestions from Weber include:
ﾷ Let children say goodbye to the pet before euthanasia or burial. A teenager away at college may want to know what’s going on.
ﾷ Let older children or teens be present for the euthanasia, if they want to be, and if they are carefully prepared for what will happen.
ﾷ Some clinics make the family a “clay paw” keepsake (see http://www.claypaws.com). A horse owner may want to keep a clipping of hair from the mane or tail.
ﾷ Let children express their feelings. Encourage a child to draw a picture or write a story about the pet. Making a scrapbook or memory book may help an older child.
ﾷ Let children help in planning a memorial, whether you have ashes, a burial, or a simple eulogy in the living room.
ﾷ Read books together, such as The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, where a mother encourages her son to think of 10 good things about his cat after the cat dies.
ﾷ Parents can learn more about pet loss from resources such as Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping, by Marty Tousley.
ﾷ Don’t rush into getting a new pet.
For more information on talking to children about pet loss, contact your local veterinarian or visit the Companion Animal Related Emotions (CARE) Helpline Web site at http://www.cvm.uiuc.edu/CARE/.
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