By Courtney Prue | June 18, 2022

Children and Pet Loss

How to Help Children Cope with the Loss of a Pet

We understand that a pet reaching the end of their life is hugely upsetting for you and your family. How you guide your child through the experience of losing a pet is a personal journey, and we are here to help you at this challenging time. Our services are designed to give your pet the best care in the late stages of their life. This includes supporting you, as a family, through decisions around saying goodbye. Let’s talk through grief in children and how to help your family through losing a pet.

Should the vet tell my child our pet is ill?

We understand it’s hard, but it’s generally best to discuss your pet’s health and illness with your children yourself. Children appreciate having information from a known and trusted source, and relying on medical professionals to deliver bad news can lead to mistrust and future problems with a child’s own medical care.

We’ll happily answer any questions your child has about your pet’s health, but it’s best to have the initial discussion with them yourself. They’ll appreciate your honesty, and it can be helpful to share your sadness to help them understand how to grieve.

Should I tell my child our pet is ill or dying?

In our experience, children understand death when it is explained to them, and it’s generally better to discuss it with them rather than leave them wondering what is going on. Children will pick up on your stress, so it’s worth explaining things at an early stage.

Psychologists agree – they say it is important to share information about your pet’s illness with your child in an age-appropriate way. This can help your child feel included and prepared. For more information about how children of different ages understand illness, death, and grief, see this article from the Trauma and Grief Network.

With children, honesty is best. However, it’s important you take into account your individual child and their stage of development. If your pet is receiving palliative care and you aren’t sure how to broach the subject with your children, we can talk it through at our next appointment and see if we can advise

Supporting your child before the loss of a pet

As adults, we can understand the decision to help our pets pass peacefully. But how do you explain euthanasia to a child?

When explaining euthanasia to children, it’s possible for them to become anxious that something similar will happen to other important figures, such as close family. This can cause anxiety around illness, with children worrying that every cold or headache will result in euthanasia. Explaining that pets age more quickly than humans can help, and you can also use sentences like ‘their body has stopped working’ or ‘we have to say goodbye forever and I feel sad, it’s OK if you do too’.

However, don’t avoid using the terms ‘death’ and ‘dying’. As adults, we often use more gentle terms to soften topics we find hard to discuss, but this can confuse children. Using the terms ‘put to sleep’, or ‘put down’ might lead to anxiety at nap time or bedtime, worry about sedation or anaesthetics, or belief that death is not permanent.

In general, it’s best to keep your discussions simple and clear so there’s no room for misunderstandings. If your child is old enough, discuss the illness and prognosis with them directly so that they understand that in-home pet euthanasia is the kindest option. We’re happy to answer any questions they may have about their pet’s condition.

This article has some valuable pointers to guide you when discussing your pet’s euthanasia with children.

Should a child be present when a pet is euthanised?

Whether or not your child attends your dog’s or cat’s euthanasia is a personal choice and depends upon your child’s age.

Professional advice is varied – some psychologists suggest that not seeing the euthanasia may cause your child to imagine the process. This can be a problem, as the imagined version can be more distressing than the real thing.

On the other hand, child psychologist Dr Elizabeth Seeley-Wait says, ‘The younger they are, the less they need to see’ and even says ‘there are some teenagers who don’t really need to see that’. It should be a personal decision based on your children’s maturity and understanding of their pet’s illness. For younger children, leaving the room during the procedure and returning when the pet has passed is another option that may work well.

When euthanasia is the right option for your pet, we can help ensure your whole family is comfortable with the how the procedure takes place. If you have specific requests or questions regarding your children being present, please let us know how we can help. For instance, a child might like to cuddle the pet once they’re gone, read a poem, or have a lock of your pet’s hair – all this can be arranged.

Supporting your child after the loss of a pet

Supporting your child through grief can be difficult, especially if you are struggling with your own feelings of sadness – how do you comfort a child when a pet dies?

The most important thing that you can do to help your child is to be there for them. Take time to comfort them, answer their questions, and remember your pet together. Children will model their behaviour on your own, and learn how to deal with losing a beloved companion by watching you.

You may want to consider some of these options to help your child remember your pet:

  • Having a memorial ceremony for your pet, like planting a flower or burying ashes – this can provide an outlet for all family members to release emotions.
  • Telling your child about fun times with your pet and encouraging them to share their memories – this can help your child feel included. Feeling close to you through sharing will provide stability for your child at a time of uncertainty. Try drawing pictures or writing stories about the pet.
  • Crying with your child and expressing your own feelings – this may help children to validate their emotions and understand they are not alone.
  • Answering your child’s questions – experiencing the death of a pet can help children learn about death more generally, so try to answer questions simply but honestly. Young children may often ask about the pet repeatedly. Even though it can be upsetting to have to answer their questions, it’s normal for them to ask so be prepared to answer more than once.
  • Being sympathetic to altered behaviour – your child may be frustrated or upset if they don’t know how to deal with their feelings, so their behaviour may change.

Who can I go to for help?

We will do our best to help. If you need additional advice regarding your child or have any specific concerns about how your child is coping with grief, we encourage you to speak with a psychotherapist, child psychologist or qualified bereavement counsellor. We can arrange grief counselling for you and your family if needed – just ask.

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