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What to Say When a Pet Dies

Explaining the death of a pet to children

Our cat was just run over by a car. What should I tell my children?

When a pet dies, be honest, accurate, and brief, advises McNamee. Parents tend to use euphemisms such as "passed away" or "went to sleep" to describe death. For a young child, words like these may end up creating confusion or even extreme fear about going to bed at night, McNamee says.

"Don't feel as though you have to give them a lot of information," says McNamee. "Tell them what happened, then see what comes from them, such as their feelings and ideas about how to handle the death."

Kimberly A. Cardeccia, MA, LPC, NCC, author of Healing Your Heart When Your Animal Friend is Gone: A Children's Pet Bereavement Workbook, says it is best to tell your children about the death right away. Then allow your children to ask questions. "Recognize that if they ask for details, they're asking for comfort," she says. "Spare them any details that would traumatize them or create a horrible picture in their minds. Make it sound as peaceful as you can."

When a pet dies, should children be present for euthanasia?

For a child under 5, McNamee advises not going into detail about euthanasia. Instead, when your pet dies in this manner, tell your child the dog was so sick or in so much pain that he died, or that the doctor needed to help him die.

If your child is older than 5, you can describe what euthanasia is and why it is sometimes necessary. Be prepared for blunt questions such as "Isn't that like killing someone?"

McNamee suggests asking a child 7 or older whether he or she wants to be present for euthanasia. You can learn a lot, she says, by simply asking your child. If this is a new experience, describe in advance what to expect.

Cardeccia suggests having the veterinarian explain to your child what the pet's bodily reactions might be during euthanasia to dispel any concerns about the pet being in pain. Another option, she says, is to bring your child into the room right after the pet dies to say goodbye.

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