Processing Pet Loss with Children
Pet Loss Article by Dr. Jessica Vogelsang
I’ve lost count of the number of homes I enter for a home euthanasia appointment to find one person, sitting on the floor with their pet. The homes are filled with photos and toys, indications of a lively family, but at this time, they are alone.
“I sent the kids away with my spouse,” they say. “I didn’t want them to see this.”
I nod in understanding. After all, I’ve done the same thing. It is very hard to know how to broach the topic of pet loss with children, especially when the process is such an unknown for the parents as well. But over time, I’ve come to realize it doesn’t have to be this way.
The parents who elect to keep their children at home share an incredible experience with the kids, one with tears but also with great beauty. The children learn many things when they are home for a euthanasia:
- Death is sad, and it’s all right to cry
- It is a time to acknowledge a wonderful shared life
- Death can be a very peaceful process surrounded by love
Many times, the parents are as comforted by the children as the children are the parents, and for some surprised parents this, too, is a revelation. The family experiences the loss as a unit.
I certainly don’t mean this to say that all families should have their children home for the death of a pet; it depends on so many circumstances, such as the ages of the children, their maturity levels, and the family’s previous experiences with loss. If children are frightened and do not want to be there, I don’t encourage forcing them to be a part of it. What I do encourage, and I’ve learned this the hard way from personal experience, is honest, open dialogue, and respect for their feelings on the topic. When there is a good deal of anxiety or fear, the assistance of a licensed therapy professional before or after the fact can be invaluable.
Processing Grief Through Art
Whether or not children are present for the passing of a pet, allowing them to express their feelings is a key part of the grieving process. Creating a memorial is a wonderful way for them to acknowledge the love they shared. I encourage kids to write letters, poems, and draw pictures to share at a family memorial service, or plant a tree, or run a donation drive for a shelter.
One of the best ways for children (and adults!) to work through their feelings is through art. The creative process is a wonderful outlet for people experiencing grief, and many parents find it is helpful to have a way to direct their child’s emotions into a guided project, particularly when the parents are also working through their own grief.
Jessica Vogelsang, DVM is an author, veterinarian, and owner of the award winning pet-centric website pawcurious.com. Dr. Vogelsang is a regular contributor to multiple online publications on topics related to pet health and the human-animal bond. Dr. Vogelsang is currently practicing as a hospice care specialist with Paws into Grace in San Diego, and has a special interest in helping loving pet owners through the difficult end of life stage.