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Talking to Young Children About Pet Loss

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“Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault, really.” – Agnes Sligh Turnbull

First of all, if you’ve stumbled across this post because you need it, I’m so sorry for your loss. Our pets are part of our family and they leave a real void when they're gone. While I can't make the hurt go away, I hope our story and strategies will help you to explain the loss of your pet to your young children.

Our Experiences With Pet Loss

On Saturday we said our final goodbyes to our family’s beloved dog, Bentley. Bentley was just a few months short of her 10th birthday and she had been a part of our family since she was just a puppy. We’re heartbroken. It was also my children’s first experience with death. My first experience with pet loss was traumatic for me and it is very vivid in my mind. We had gone on a family vacation and I was told our dog was being boarded. When we got home I asked when we would be picking up our dog and that’s when I was told that our dog had died. I never got to say goodbye and I remember it being really hard for me.

I didn’t want that for them. I also decided I wanted to be very honest about how we know Bentley was going to pass away that day because I didn’t want them to think we always know when death is coming. I wanted to be comforting, but as honest and straightforward about it as I could be to ensure their first experience with death was as least traumatic as possible. I knew I was lucky to have this opportunity and I wanted to be careful in how I approached it.

If You Can, Start the Conversation Well In Advance

Bentley’s health was failing for some time so I had thought a lot about how I wanted to approach this day with the kids. We talked often over the last few months about how Bentley’s health was deteriorating and how she was getting old and having trouble walking. Yet the day before we had to have the big conversation I found myself overwhelmed with the how. I had decided I wanted to explain to them in advance what was going to happen and why.

Be Honest. Don't Use Euphemisms. Use Direct, Clear Language.

On Saturday morning I explained to my 3 and 6 year old that Bentley had gotten too sick and was in too much pain and so the time had come for us to say our goodbyes because Bentley was going to die today. It's uncomfortable as an adult to use such blunt language but I didn’t use euphemisms like "passing away" or "put down" or "to sleep" because I didn’t want to confuse them.

Mr. J (6 year old) asked why Bentley had to die today and I explained how it was an act of kindness for Bentley because she is a pet and can’t understand why she’s in so much pain. I said that the vet would come and give her some medication and that Bentley would close her eyes as if she was falling asleep but that she would die and that dying means that she will not open her eyes again and unfortunately she won’t come back. The vet uses special medication to make sure that she doesn't feel pain when she dies. Dying means her body stops working and she will not wake up again or get better. She will be gone. I told them how it makes me feel very sad to say goodbye to Bentley and that I will miss her very much. I asked how they felt about it. They agreed they felt sad too. Mr. J asked if we could take pictures to remember Bentley.

Use Books to Help Explain the Situation

Before my father came to take the older kids to his house, we read a few books about pet loss.

First we read, Saying Goodbye to Lulu by Corinne Demas. This book does a great job of explaining some of the signs that a pet will be dying soon, less energy, difficulty walking, etc. A lot of the story lined up well with what was happening with our dog so it helped them see it very clearly. It also used direct language like "the dog is dead," which again as an adult feels a bit uncomfortable but it's age appropriate for children.

We then read, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst. This book dealt with the loss of a pet cat. The cat is already gone at the beginning of the story and the narrator and his family are having a funeral and burying him the backyard. The boy's mom tells him to think of ten good things about Barney the cat but he's having trouble coming up with the last one. The book mentions heaven but not in a definitive sense which was appropriate for our family's belief system. I would highly recommend both books!

They asked a lot of questions about whether I thought there was a heaven. I said I didn’t know for sure but that some people believe there is. I said if there is one, surely Bentley will go there. I told them that some people believe dogs cross a rainbow bridge to get to heaven. We said it's beautiful to imagine a bridge made from a rainbow. Again, there was no definitive language here. It was more of a secular approach.

Think of a Ritual or Activity to Do With Your Pet to Say Goodbye

We then went outside to see Bentley who was laying on the back porch in the sun. Mr. J noticed our daffodils had bloomed overnight and we laughed as we remembered how last year Bentley wouldn't stop smelling them and got pollen on her snout. The kids picked some daffodils for Bentley to smell. They gave her hugs and kisses and then they said their goodbyes to her. We took a few photos and they left to my dad’s house. We did not have them present for the euthanasia.

When the vet arrived, I cried as I held Bentley in my arms and laid forehead to forehead with her as she drifted away. It was peaceful but gut wrenching.

Be Honest About Feelings of Grief

The kids came back and were very sweet and loving to me. They asked me if I was sad and I was honest and said I was. Ms. S said she felt sad and that she missed Bentley. Mr. J said the house felt empty without Bentley. He asked if we could look at pictures of her. I said that we could. We looked at pictures and videos of Bentley together.

I explained how my grief sometimes comes at me like a wave. The feelings get better but then sometimes they come back again and it knocks me over like a big wave does on the beach and I feel very sad again. I did that so he'd understand if sometimes over the next few days he saw me cry or if he felt sad himself.

Every time I have gotten quiet over the last few days, my sweet boy comes up and gives me a big hug and then of course the 3 year old follows suit. They have comforted me maybe even more than I’ve had to comfort them.

They’ve had moments of sadness too but they’re not traumatized by the experience and that is a relief to me. I won’t be able to control most, if any other experiences they have with death but I’m glad this first one could be as gentle for them as possible. Saying goodbye to a pet is never easy. Having conversations about death with young children isn’t comfortable but I’m glad I didn’t underestimate their ability to understand and grasp it and I’m so proud of them for showing so much love and empathy to our dog and to me.

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