A pet can be a child’s closest friend, a faithful companion and comforter sharing the child’s joys and disappointments.
A pet can be a child’s closest friend, a faithful companion and comforter sharing the child’s joys and disappointments and dispensing unconditional love by its mere presence and touch. Its loss will be traumatic. Moreover the death of a pet will often be a child’s first encounter with death and its painful, bewildering aftermath.
The grief a child will feel at the death of Buster, the collie, or Poppy, the cat, is akin to that felt at the loss of a close family member. And while it is possible to buy another dog or cat, no one can replace Buster or Poppy.
Talking honestly and matter-of-factly about the animal’s health when the first signs of a possible problem occur will help prepare the ground for more serious conversations if and when the animal falls gravely ill and subsequently dies or is put down.
Most vets are trained to deal with children’s feelings when a much loved pet is dying. They will explain procedures honestly in language that is appropriate to the child’s age and, in doing so, will take some of the pain out of what is the distressing experience of visiting the vet for the last time.
Daniella Dos Santos, Junior Vice President of the British Veterinary Association believes such honesty is key. “If a teenager is in the room it’s really important that I acknowledge they’re there and that I speak directly to them,” she says. “I ask if they have any questions. I explain the process. And I always give them the option of staying until the end. And I make it clear that there is no right or wrong answer.”
“For the younger ones (maybe for the 5/6/7 yr olds) I think that becomes a matter of parental choice. Sometimes they [the teenagers] absolutely want to stay there. Some just want to remember their cat as it was and they don’t want to see that last moment.”
Avoid euphemisms like “gone to sleep”. Younger children may take such statements literally and, quite naturally, expect the pet to wake up again sooner or later. Alternatively they may instinctively realise that this is no ordinary sleep and harbour the nagging dread that something unpleasant may well happen to them when they go to bed at night.
The reality, when softly spoken and gently explained, can heal more effectively than any fiction and it is likely to prove much more comforting than some of the wilder speculations children might conjure up in their imaginations. “My overriding advice is always be honest,” says Dr Dos Santos. “It isn’t fair to a child, if you know that the animal is not coming home, to go to the vet and come back without the dog. That child needs to grieve and the process of grieving starts from the point at which the decision has been made.”
Unlike the death of a pet in a road accident, say, a pet’s death following an illness can be managed. And Dr Dos Santos considers it “a privilege to be able to ensure an animal has a good death.”
As a parent or guardian you can play an important part in this process. Talk to the vet or the vet nurse to inform yourself of the medical procedures beforehand and, in language appropriate to age, share them with the child so that he or she is not shocked or taken by surprise. Essentially the vet will be administering an overdose of anaesthetic so that the animal will slip painlessly into what looks like sleep. However the child should not be left with the thought that this is sleep nor, importantly, that this is the way sick humans will eventually die.
If the animal dies unexpectedly in an accident the whole family will experience the shock simultaneously. Try to share the sadness openly and without embarrassment. Your own tears will help children feel they are not alone in their sorrow and that this is a pain that can be shared.
Be mindful also that this could be their first encounter with the terrifying unpredictability of the world; nothing short of the existential realisation that animals, people and things they love can be taken from them without warning. Answer the child’s questions honestly admitting that even you don’t always have the answers. Your willingness simply to discuss these difficult questions will take away some of the fear and anxiety surrounding them. Your openness and honesty at such a traumatic time will be life lessons in themselves, helping children to cope with future setbacks and sorrows.
There is evidence that children grieve differently than adults. The stages through which they pass may be the same – denial, anger, confusion, sadnesss, guilt, fear – but the way in which emotions are expressed are different and will vary from child to child. Children can be easily distracted. One minute they may be still and the next minute caught up in a computer game or tearing around the garden. Do not assume that tearing around the garden means they are “over it” and back to normal. A child’s grief can come in spurts, with moments of sadness and introspection alternating with bouts of apparently carefree activity.
Do not underestimate the painful and confusing emotions bubbling beneath the surface of things. Daniella Ballard, a student at St Mary’s University, Twickenham still remembers the death of her cat, Pixie, a decade or so earlier and describes herself as nothing short of “a broken human” for some time afterwards.
It is advisable, says Jonathan Wittenberg author of Things My Dog Has Taught Me About Being A Better Human, to take your lead from the child, to give the child space to grieve but also to be available to answer questions when they arise. Language that is “gentle but honest” is infinitely preferable to falsely comforting fictions that sugar-coat the reality of death.
The pet can be buried or cremated and its body or remains interred in the garden or in a separate section of a municipal cemetery. Discuss all these options with the child so that they are fully involved in the practicalities.
You might also discuss memorialising the pet in some way. Some veterinary practices offer fur clippings or paw-prints as mementoes or you might want to discuss other ways of remembering what was effectively a much-loved member of the family. Jonathan Wittenberg and his children planted a tree for their dog Safi. You might suggest compiling an album of photographs or a scrapbook of memories that might include drawings, poems or prayers.
Parents will often wonder about the best time to get another pet. “I don’t think there’s an answer to that question,” says Dr Dos Santos bluntly. “It is very much a personal decision. I think it’s important that grieving owners don’t feel there’s [only one] right way to deal with it.”
Jonathan Wittenberg’s family resolved the dilemma by getting another dog, Mitzpah, while Safi was still alive. Above all, discuss options openly and honestly as a family.
As life gets back to normal don’t banish Buster or Poppy from conversation for fear of upsetting children. Encourage them to talk openly about their canine chum and feline friend. Remembering the fun they had together in life is a healthy way of memorialising them in death and an important milestone along the road to acceptance and resolution.
You can find out more by listening to our podcast: How do you tell a child about the death of a pet?