Yesterday I received a sad email from a dear friend who was reaching out for advice on how to tell her precious five year old daughter that the dog she's known her whole 5 years, has to be put down. He's sick and suffering and it is the only humane choice for them to make.
My heart broke for her - for her own loss of the dog she's known and loved for 9 years, and also for the pain and heartache that she knows her daughter will experience in losing her best friend.
Her questions were tough ones - Do I let her say goodbye? How do I tell her? How do I help her to understand?
I went through these same questions with my own children just a year ago when we lost our dear, big ole Golden Retriever Bobo. It was hard to navigate. It's much easier to help others through these hard times, which is part of my job, but to go through it myself was more difficult and confusing. There are no clear black and white answers. We all have different beliefs about death and the existence of the afterlife. How I handled it may not work for everyone, but this is what I did, and what I shared with my friend.
1) Be honest. Be gentle, but don't sugarcoat or lessen the truth of what is going to happen. My 3 year old couldn't quite yet wrap her little mind around it all, but kids are too smart not to be honest with them.
2) Explain what is wrong with your pet in very simple terms (cancer) and that it is time for him to go. Often times our pets are suffering and we can explain that they won't feel pain and suffering anymore after they're gone.
3) Children are very visual, so it's helpful to help them to create an image in their minds. It seemed to help my children a lot to know that their dog is now in a place where he can run around and play with lots of other animals who have died too.
4) Everyone's spiritual beliefs vary widely, but being a big believer in spirit I was able to tell my children something that has helped them greatly. I told them that Bobo will always be with them in spirit. And he is still a part of their consciousness today. He receives occasional hellos from them and waves toward the sky from the from time to time. They still count him as one of our family members.
5) Allow your children to feel whatever they're feeling. Drawing pictures of their pet and things that they used to do together can be very helpful in the healing process. For older children, writing down their favorite memories or writing a letter to their pet can be immensely helpful.
6) Don't get a new pet too soon. Children need their time to grieve. They may not talk about the loss of their pet a lot, but that doesn't mean that they're not still processing what has happened. Children are very loyal and may feel disloyal to their pet that they've lost if you bring a new pet into the home too soon. It may also suggest that their grief is not important if their pet is so replaceable.
7) It's okay not to have all of the answers for them and it's also okay to admit that.
By providing a safe place for your children to grieve and by listening and being there for them, you are beginning to build a foundation in their hearts and minds for handling the future losses that they will experience in their lives. Death is a part of life, and while we yearn to protect our children from pain and suffering, it is our responsibility to gently teach them about the more difficult realities of life.
In love & respect for all creatures,