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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 honestly.

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.

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