It is very difficult to decide what to tell your children when your pet dies. The only thing I can tell you for sure is that there is not a one size fits all approach to this topic.
There is no RIGHT way.Despite the title, this post is not a “this is what you SHOULD do” type article.
We were faced with this situation just last month. My husband got the news first and asked, “What should we tell the kids?”
There’s no textbook answer here, but here are the things I considered and how it played out for us. Whatever you choose to do for your circumstances is okay! Follow your instincts.
Our dog, Tyson, was a 110 pound American Bulldog. He was already sort of old when my first child was born three years ago. Obviously, he just got older as my other children were born.
He was great with the kids, but in a “I’m here and I’m not going to bother you” sort of way. They did not “play” together really. Tyson would let the kid pull his ears or pull his tail or pretty much jump on him and if he got annoyed, he would just get up and walk away.
The kids helped take care of him by giving him food (real pet food in his bowl plus way too many scraps that they dropped on the floor) and sometimes giving him medicine.
He was a fixture in our home. But, for other people, their children interact WAY more consistently with their family pet. If you have a younger dog or if you have older children that were more involved in choosing and training the dog, things are going to be different.
Consider the pet’s role in your family when deciding how to handle a pet death.
Tyson was sick. He had a heart murmur and more than likely had Cushing Syndrome (we didn’t have him tested). He had a mass cell tumor. I knew that this was coming at some point. My kids did not.
We were planning a trip out of town and dropped Tyson off at our vet for boarding for the weekend. We took the kids to the mall for some last minute errands and while we were there, the vet called and said Tyson had a heart attack ten minutes after we dropped him off.
Luckily, our children did not witness his death. We also did not have to manage having him in our home around the children. We were fortunate that I had some time to figure out what to tell them.
If your pet is involved in a traumatic death or if your children are present during the death, that changes things.
Just be authentic in your response. If it’s scary-say you are are scared. If you are crying hysterically, then try to calm down a little but admit that this is very sad.
Okay, so this seems like a no-brainer, but your explanation of the death will vary depending on the age of your child. Remember, mine are 2 and 3. This is basically what I told them:
(Remember we were at the mall. Actually riding the carousel which they wanted to ride again).
Me: Hey guys. I know you would like to ride the horses again, but Tyson’s doctor just called and said he was very sick. We need to go check on him.
(There was some discussion about riding more horses and getting snacks, but I just kept repeating that our dog was very sick and we needed to go check on him).
Sarah: What’s wrong with Tyson?
Me: He’s very sick. His heart is not working very well and something happened.
(I wasn’t sure if I was going to tell him he died at this point).
Sarah: Are they going to give him medicine?
Me: Yeah, I think they gave him some medicine already. It makes him very sleepy so he doesn’t move right now.
Jackson: He can’t bark.
Me: No, he can’t bark. Remember, when Colorado (our fish) was very sick?
Jackson: Yeah, we flushed him.
Me: Yeah, we did flush him. Tyson is really sick like our fish. The doctors are trying to help him, but they are not sure if they can.
Sarah: Mom, did Tyson die?
(See, how she caught on to me beating around the bush…I decided to just be honest).
Me: Yes, I think he did.
Sarah: Are we going to take him home?
Me: No. I think he’s going to go to doggy heaven.
(We could have brought him home for burial but decided against it since we are moving from our home. So, I needed a way to explain cremation without going into detail).
Sarah: Can we go there? (no). How do you get to doggy heaven?
Me: Only the dog doctor knows how to get to doggy heaven. That’s part of their job. So, they gave Tyson some medicine to keep him really still so he can go there. We can go up and say ‘Goodbye, Tyson, we love you’ before he goes. And then when we go home, he won’t be with us anymore.
Grayson: Yeah, he’s very sick. (brief pause). Can we listen to Moana? (movie soundtrack)
Again, this is going to be a personal decision. Follow your instincts in the situation. For us, I decided that it might be weird to just have a dog and then never see him again.
When we got to the vet, my husband did a visitation and said he was concerned that the kids would be scared because Tyson’s eyes were not closed all the way and his tongue was hanging out. I took a look for myself. I thought they could handle it.
I decided to leave it up to them. I asked them each individually if they wanted to say goodbye to Tyson. They each said yes.
So, one at a time, I took each of my three children aside in the hallway and told them what to expect:
There are a bunch of dogs back there in cages that are staying for the weekend. They might bark at you to say Hello when we walk in. Tyson is sleeping in a cage and he has a silly face (made silly face with my tongue out). It’s from the medicine to get him ready to go to doggie heaven.
Then, I took them in. Sarah petted him and gave him a hug. She talked to him for a few minutes and then said she was done.
Grayson did almost the same thing on his turn. At this point, the vet tech is looking at me like I’m crazy. (I found out later that she told my husband that little kids usually don’t do this).
When Jackson walked in he said, “I’m scared.” I reflected the feeling (it is a little scary, but he’s still our dog). I sat down beside Tyson and pet him myself. Again, I offered a choice. Would you like to pet him and say goodbye or are you ready to go? He decided to pet him. He smiled and said goodbye Tyson.
And then we left.
During the trip, we saw a couple of other dogs. My kids didn’t seem bothered by them. They were happy to have a little tiny dog around to hold. Grayson said a few times, “our dog is very sick.”
They all said that when we got home, he would not be there. They mention it occasionally that our dog is very sick and can’t come home. They seem to be doing just fine.
And right on cue, the following week, the vet just happen to send this card:
So, I was able to show my children that the dog doctor sent us a note that confirmed that Tyson did in fact make it safely to doggy heaven! Thank you to Cordova Station Animal Hospital for your care and concern!
The cycle of grief and loss is the same for everyone, including children:
This cycle continues over and over again until we spend most of the time in acceptance phase.
Mine went through it pretty quickly. Remember, they are two and three!
If they were six or nine or sixteen, I would have handled it differently because they would have responded differently. What would I have done then?
Truthfully, I have no clue!
Well, I guess that’s not actually true. I would have considered the circumstances, their ages, and the relationship with the pet and I would have given them some options about how to handle it.
If you are worried about a pet in your home that is getting old or is very sick and are wondering how to handle it, I would say follow your instincts in the situation. But don’t worry about trying to protect your children from feeling sad. Kids can handle a lot of stuff, but they need to feel a sense of power and control over it.
I told them the truth (mostly). Sometimes, I think it is okay to sugar coat it a little bit.
How have you handled a pet death in your family?
Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at firstname.lastname@example.org
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