Learning to say Goodbye

I wouldn’t trade being a veterinarian for anything in the world! As a pet doctor I get to see excited families everyday with their new puppy or kitten (or lizard or bunny etc). I help sick and injured pets heal and return home to their worried families. But I also have another important role. That role is, guiding pet owners through the death of their pet. For many people losing a pet can be just as difficult as losing a human family member. Often pet owners are caught off guard, or feel foolish, by how much grief they feel. For families with children, a parents’ grief is compounded by concern and anxiety for their children experiencing loss and grief. The loss of a pet may be a child’s first experience with death.

What to expect when pet dies depends on a few circumstances. The pet may die at home, become old and sick or have a sudden serious accident or illness. The pet may die naturally, or be suffering and require humane euthanasia. Your veterinarian can council you on end of life planning. This information includes, when is the right time to say goodbye, what is involved in the euthanasia procedure, what will be done with your pets body after death. Details like location (home visit or clinic), what family members are going to be present, and memorial option to honor your pet can be discussed as well. Being a well-informed and active participant in this process can help to lessen guilt and regret, typical feelings associated with grief.

Children grieve differently than adults, and how they express and process loss depends on individual personality and age:

– Young children, under 5 yrs old understand things in a very literal way. They require explanations that are very direct. Explain death as the body has stopped working. Children often want explanation of where the pets’ body is (in the ground), and may be concerned about things like what the pet will eat and drink.

– Children age 6-12 are beginning to understand that death is permanent, but because it is such big topic to grasp still often have a magical or fantastical understanding linked to death, like ghosts and zombies

– Teenagers begin to develop a more adult perception of death. They know everything living will eventually die, and death is permanent. They may start posing questions about their own mortality. Children at this stage often turn to their peers for grief support more than their parents

This experience with grief can start to shape how a child deals with loss as an adult. What can you expect and do to help?

How long will my child grieve?
Some children’s grief experience is very brief, others much longer. Don’t feel you need drag out sadness if your child has seemed to move on. If your child seems to get over the loss in a day and you’re still devastated weeks later, that’s very normal. It doesn’t mean your child isn’t capable of deep love, he has just accepted the new reality. On the other hand, your child may be very emotional (sadness, anger, unpredictable behavior), long after your grief has ebbed away, indicating they are still mourning. Or your child may seem outwardly normal, yet is still not through the grieving process. This might be expected with teenagers, but can occur in younger children as well. Children have a tendency to blame themselves in traumatic situations. Reassure your child he is not responsible or at fault in anyway.

A colleague of mine lost her young dog in a tragic accident. Understandably her and her husband were beside themselves with grief. They were anxious to tell their 3 young children that they would never see their beloved dog again. When they broke the news they cried with their kids, and cried some more. For about an hour… Then the kid’s sadness resolved and they started to ask when they would get a new puppy. My colleague jokingly describes her children as having a ‘one hour wash out period between dogs’. She, however, could still be reduced to tears, just saying her dog’s name months later.

How do I explain this to my children?
Honesty is the best policy here. Regardless of how your child takes the news he will likely remember this experience the rest of his life, and be discussing it with his therapist as an adult! The level of detail and complexity depends on the child’s age, but it is best to stick to a few basic facts and let your child’s questions guide how many details to provide.

For example, “Buster became very sick (got very hurt), the vet tried her best but could not help him get better. He is dead now and will not feel anymore pain”.

Do not describe your pet as sleeping or being put to sleep as children will interpret this literally, and can become fearful of sleep. Do not say the pet has ran away, and hope they will forget! This will only provide great material for future therapy sessions.

There is a good chance your child will not understand the first time you explain, be prepared to repeat and rephrase yourself several times. This can be an opportunity to incorporate your own views on spirituality

Your kid is sad – that’s OK
As Mommy’s and Daddy’s we want to protect our children from pain and sadness. Grief is a natural process, and your child may not understand how he is feeling and how to express it. Ask open-ended Q’s, and try to not impose feelings on your child. For example, How have you been feeling since Buster’s death? Vs Are you sad because Buster died? Although the child likely is sad, you’re probably going to get more information from your child with the first question. Don’t discourage crying or tell them to cheer up, let the sadness run its course – as hard as it is to witness. It’s best not to promise a new pet or other material present to coax the child out of sadness. New pets and presents are fine. But not if they make the child feel they can no longer express their feelings. Bribing happiness creates more adult therapy session material

You are sad too. Including your child in your own grieving process can help them understand that these feelings are normal. I was 12 when I had to face losing our family dog. She was 15 years old and I had never known life without her. I was so sad my parents allowed me to stay home from school. However, I somewhat regretted that as my poor Mom clung to me crying, even my Dad cried! It was uncomfortable and a bit scary to see my parents so sad. But I never doubted that losing a pet is heartbreak and grieving is something you do as a family.

Letting them say goodbye
If time permits, prepare your child that your pet is going to die. In cases of euthanasia you may want to have your child present with you during the procedure. Talk to your veterinarian about what to expect so you and your child can decide if that is appropriate.

Many families hold memorial services for their pet. This can allow an opportunity for more final goodbyes and a sense of finality.

Remembering your pet
Celebrating your pets life can help complete the grieving process and be a lovely way to honor your pet. Children can make a special craft; a memory box or you can plant a tree. Just talking about your pet regularly and sharing memories is an important part of a healthy grieving process.

Where to go for help:
Ontario Veterinary College Pet Loss Support Hotline: (519)824-4120 ext 53694

Pet loss councilors:
Cindy Adams – (519)824-4120 x 54747

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