5 Ways to Help a Child Prepare for the Loss of a Pet

Self on 08.03.12
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Photo: Maaike Bernstrom Photography

It's been a rough day. My first baby is not doing well. She's a twelve-and-a-half year old black lab-chow mix. I've had her since she was eight months old, and while she isn't the most people-friendly dog, she has been a loyal companion and my greatest protector for nearly twelve years. She's been in my life longer than my husband of eight years, who quickly fell in love with her as well. She watched us bring home our babies, and has loved them and tolerated their antics through the last six years of her life. My three-year-old calls her "sister." But she has a tumor and it has suddenly gotten enormous and it looks like we only have a few days left with her. It is hard enough for my husband and I to handle the loss of our first baby, but how do we also make sure that our six and three-year olds are prepared for what's about to come?

1. Don't pretend that pets will live forever. One thing that I am so happy that I did now that we are at this point is that I told the kids over a year ago that dogs only live to be 12 or 13. When my son said something about our pup living forever, I explained that wasn't the case and that in fact dogs have a much shorter life span than humans. And for the past year or so he has brought it up, but not in a bad way. He tells people that she's 12 and that that is old for a dog so he knew that at some point in the near future she is going to die.

2. Allow the kids to say goodbye. When we took her to the vet today, my son was with us. I thought it might be "the end" and I was really struggling with not letting my daughter who was at school see her before we went and not wanting her to be there if it was. I decided to leave her at school. I was too emotional. But I am so thankful that we did get to bring our puppy home for the time being so that we can allow both kids to say good-bye to her. I don't think it's fair to not let her have that moment even it will be difficult. That's the kind of resentment a child can hold for a long time.

3. Give them enough information -- but not too much. When we were on our way to the vet, my son asked if she was going to have to stay the night. I told him that she might not come home at all. He wondered what the vet was going to do with her, and I explained that she is going to die soon and that the vet will help her do that by giving her medicine that helps her go to sleep so that she doesn't suffer. He felt good that it was going to make her feel better and didn't feel like the vet was going to be doing anything bad to her.

4. Make memories. The wonderful thing about six-year-olds is that they understand their feelings and they are very forthcoming with sharing them when asked. My son is concerned that he is going to miss her, and he has requested that we make sure we have plenty of pictures of her to look at on display around the house. We will not only oblige his request because it's what will make him feel better, but we'll also take more pictures of them together in these last days so that he feels that he has as many as he needs to always remember her.

5. Show them your tears. While it's important to be stoic as a parent, it's also good to let your kids see your emotions. We won't have the frank discussion of when it is "time" around them, but it's ok to let them see you cry. (And in my case it appears to be unavoidable, so that's a really good thing.) But by allowing them to see your sadness it lets them know that it is ok to be sad as well. You want them to let you know how they are feeling so that you can work through those feelings with them, but if we bottle up our own feelings it teaches them that they should as well.

There is no doubt that the next few days in our house are going to be rough ones, but we're going to make them days filled with as many happy moments with our pet as we can squeeze in as long as she isn't suffering. We'll let the kids do their favorite things with her, we'll give her the things she loves the most from walks on the beach to special treats, and we'll give her as many pats as we can so that we all feel that her final days are the best they can be and so that we can all find closure in this most difficult part of life.

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