(LIFE WITH PETS) Losing a family member is a difficult thing, and losing a pet can be just as heartbreaking if not more. Dr. Sujatha Ramakrishna, author of Raising Kids Who Love Animals, delves into the issue of helping children understand the sad facts of life in a way that prepares them for the future. — Global Animal
By Sujatha Ramakrishna, M.D.
A sad fact of life is that our pets don’t live as long as we do. For many of us, saying goodbye to a beloved animal is just as hard as saying goodbye to a human family member. When children are involved, the situation becomes even more difficult.
Many parents have a hard time dealing with their own feelings when a family pet is sick or dying, and on top of that they have to help their kids understand and get through these situations. While every child has a unique emotional makeup, including the ability to handle the death of a companion animal, there are a few general principles that parents can follow to make these times easier for everyone.
Kids acquire an understanding of death over a period of many years. During the early stages of their cognitive development, they may not realize that it’s possible for an animal to go to sleep and not wake back up again. Beginning at around age seven, they start to develop a more complete concept of death, as an irreversible and inevitable event. However, this doesn’t mean that parents should avoid telling young children the truth. Euphemisms such as “went to a better place” or “gone to sleep” are often more confusing than reassuring for kids, who may be left wondering when their pet is going to wake up again or come back home to them.
Simply saying that an animal is dying, or has passed away, is better way to phrase it. Most children will ask additional questions, and these should be answered in an honest and straightforward manner. If parents need to explain that the family pet must be euthanized, they can point out signs such as decreased appetite and lack of energy, which indicate that the animal is suffering and no longer enjoying life. If kids cry or become upset when they hear this, that’s a normal part of the grieving process, and completely ok. And it’s actually better in the long run if they are told that an animal is dying, and allowed to say goodbye, instead of being told that a pet has passed away after the fact.
Being in the room when a pet is euthanized is more than most kids are able to handle, but an adolescent who feels strongly about being present and saying a final farewell should be allowed to do so. After the animal has died, holding some kind of memorial service and allowing children to participate helps them get closure. Even saying a few words after burying a goldfish in the backyard, which might seem silly to a lot of adults, allows kids to express their emotions and pay tribute to their lost companion.
It’s also good to remember that dealing with the illness and death of family pets teaches kids lessons about how to handle these situations when human family members are sick and dying. Children who are taught to treat terminally ill animals with dignity and respect are likely to do the same in future interactions with people, whether it’s visiting grandma in the hospital as teenagers, or discussing end-of-life decisions with their own parents after they become adults. Helping kids work through these issues openly and honestly takes time and effort on the part of parents, but when done properly it has long-lasting benefits.