What to Say When a Pet Dies
Explaining the death of a pet to children
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.
My child doesn't seem to be grieving. What's wrong?
Remember that grief in a child may not look the same as it does in an adult.
"A child may not react in as sad a way as an adult might expect," says McNamee.
She might go in and out of strong feelings - be intensely sad, then begin to
play and act as if it hasn't happened."
Behavior is often the language of young children, so your child may display
grief with a change in play. It's also common for a 7- to 9-year-old to ask
morbid questions about the death, which are best answered directly and
Teens may have a different reaction. They may either under react or
overreact, often caught in a place somewhere between childhood and adulthood.
Your teen may not want to talk but may go off by himself, says McNamee.
The important thing to know, she says, is that children of all ages grieve
over pet loss. They just don't do it in the same way.
When a pet dies, what can I do to help my child?
Both Cardeccia and McNamee emphasize the importance of involving your
children in the grieving process by asking them directly what they'd like to
do. "Children need a process of saying goodbye," says McNamee, and you can help
them do this in a variety of ways. Have them draw pictures of your pet. Share
funny stories. Plant a tree in the backyard in honor of the pet. Put the pet's
ashes and pictures on the fireplace mantle. These kinds of tangible steps may
be more helpful to your child than talking alone.
There are also many children's books that explain the death of a pet to help
with the grieving process. But read them first with an eye toward whether they
promote misconceptions about death, says McNamee. Some do. Look for books that
communicate that others have had a similar experience and feelings, McNamee
says, and that it is okay to feel sad or angry. If you're reading these to your
child, you can leave out any parts you feel are inappropriate.