Helping children through the death of a pet can be difficult and rewarding. Many parents struggle with how to talk about death with their kids. However, NOT talking about death can actually make everything more difficult for both children and adults.
Should Children Be Present
Children of ALL ages need honest, easy to understand information about death. Use concrete words to tell what happens to the body during death. Do NOT use words like "put down" or "putting pet to sleep". These only leave children confused about what it means to sleep or rest. Younger children need to understand that bodies stop working when they die (bodies no longer hear, see, taste or feel). Older children may be more interested in what caused the body to stop, and may need help understanding why the condition could not be cured. Avoid using words that confuse children, and instead explain euthanasia as a way a veterinarian can assist pets so that they can die peacefully and without pain.
Offer to answer any question your child may have. Be open to the questions about silly things as well as more difficult topics.
Offer the child a CHOICE. If your family is preparing for euthanasia, explain what death may look like and ask how your child wants the goodbye to look and feel. Children should also be given a choice about seeing the body after their pet has passed. And many times a burial or memorial service can help.
Never judge anyone in how they grieve. It is okay to cry, be nervous, have trouble sleeping and have difficulty in work or school. Feelings are normal. Allow children that may have trouble using their words to draw pictures or create scrapbooks of memories.
Children can tell stories about their pets to help them remember the happy times. These memories can help provide comfort.
Sometimes we need a break from sadness, so it is okay to plan something fun in the coming days. Make sure your child knows that being able to laugh doesn't mean they didn't love their pet, and laughter is a way to heal.
Stick with routines to help your child adjust as much as possible.
Ultimately it is up to the children and the family what is best. However, I have always found that learning about death is something many of us hide from due to fear. We don't give children enough credit for being able to handle difficult situations.
Recommended Books for Children:
When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers
Dog Heaven and Cat Heaven by Cynthia RylantThe Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst