Jul 15, 2014

How to help your kids say goodbye to a pet

A week ago today my 18-year-old kitty, Obie, had to be euthanized.  My children knew he was slowing down and getting older.  We had talked about it more than once over the last year.  Knowing that he wouldn't live forever didn't prepare any of us to say goodbye to his sweet fuzzy face. We were lucky, we knew Obie's time was coming, and we had ample time to say goodbye.

Obie had been my cat since I was in college, he was a part of my family before I was even married to my husband.  He was my first baby, he slept with me (actually, on my pillow) for the first 3 years of his life.  He followed me around and played fetch like a dog.  He loved to hop into the shower with me (and continued the practice of standing in the rain or sprinklers to get fresh water until the last week of his life).  When I got married, Obie got kicked out of the bedroom, but he remained a center-piece of my life.  When the kids came, Obie patiently and studiously avoided clutching fingers and thrown toys, eventually becoming my son's best friend, first confidant, and faithful companion.

My kids are now 11 and 9. 

I went to bed that night knowing that it was time.  As I went to tuck Obie in, I realized he had lost the use of his hind legs.  He seemed confused and annoyed by the inability to walk.  When the kids woke up I had been up for a few hours (I couldn't sleep), and my husband and I sat down with them to tell them the bad news.  My son knew instantly, even before we could tell them, tears started flowing.  My daughter was surprisingly calm and stoic, though later it became clear that it was because she was convinced we were wrong and Obie would be just fine.

We had all morning to spend with him, petting him and cuddling him.  When it came time to take him to the Vet, I gave my kids the choice.  Both chose to go with he and I, to offer him their support.  The scene at the Vet's office was tragic, Obie was nervous, the kids were emotional, I was emotional, and in the end we were all weeping. 

The next few days were full of sudden tears and the need to talk about Obie frequently.  Both kids had found tufts of his fur and were squirreling them away; my daughter did so she wouldn't forget how soft he was, my son did so he could have him cloned sometime in the future {to each their own}. I am sure you can tell that we are all still reeling from the loss, he was a really amazing cat.  This is the only pet my kids have ever known, but I have hope it won't be the last. 

If you are facing the loss of a pet in the near future and want to know what to do about your kids, these are my two cents:

Honesty is the best policy.
Be honest with your kids about what is happening or has happened to your pet.  Don't sugar-coat it or use Euphemisms.  Using language that is appropriate for the ages of your kids, explain that your pet will die or has died.  Answer the questions they have and keep the lines of communication open.

Both of my kids had many questions about the process of euthanasia and what would happen to his spirit and his body after he died.  Just use simple language and keep it age appropriate!

Grieve WITH them.
It is okay for your kids to see you grieve.  It clearly upset both of my kids when they saw me really cry as I said goodbye to Obie in the Vet's office.  It also gave them permission to really grieve, and an example of what my grief looked like in that moment.

Every time one of my kids blurts out "I miss Obie", I am able to say "so do I", and they know I am telling the truth.

Let them say goodbye
If you have the time to allow your kids the opportunity to say goodbye to your pet, it is good to do so.  Life is not always easy, and it is okay for your kids to experience the pain and responsibility of saying goodbye to a loved one.   Even if it is hard in the moment, the closure they will gain is more than worth it.

Don't rush into adoption
Please don't run out and find a replacement pet for your kids.  Give them time to process and understand their grief and the loss of a beloved pet.  Adopting a new animal should be a separate and special experience that will be the beginning of a new relationship.  Rushing into an adoption may cause feelings of anger and guilt.  Children will need time, not the distraction of a new pet, to fully heal from their loss.

The loss of a pet is more than just the loss of an animal, for most of us the pet is a part of the family.  Keep talking, keep those lines of communication open and don't ever tell them to "get over it." Your children will be grieving more than the loss of a plaything, they will be grieving the loss of a playmate and the unconditional love that animal offers.

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  1. This is very timely as I had to put our 20 year old dog down yesterday. My daughter isn't yet 1, but I could tell she felt something different in the house. I will probably have to talk to her when it is time for our cat to go.

  2. So sorry for your loss! Losing our beloved furry family members is so difficult! I am sure she felt something different! Pets really do fill in the gaps of life.


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