Letting the Red Fern Grow
There is only one kindest dog in the world, and every child has her.
- Greta Kruse
A veterinarian friend of mine recently shared two at-home euthanasia stories with me - both involving children. In the first, she arrived at the family’s home to find a distraught 10-year-old and only child, curled up near her dog Molly. Molly’s irremediable pain was so great, she had not been able to participate in any of her normal activities for weeks. Rather than allow Molly to suffer to death, the girl’s parents made the difficult decision to have Molly euthanized.
The vet first injected a sedative to allow Molly to gently fall into a deep sleep. As Molly did so, the girl’s parents instructed her to go out and play. The girl, sobbing throughout begged them to allow her to stay, but her parents - believing she shouldn’t witness her beloved companion’s death - insisted she leave the room.
The second story involved a family with four children - ages four through nine. The family purposefully scheduled their companion animal’s euthanasia when their school-age children would be home from school. The four children served as pallbearers, lovingly carrying their dog in a box they had spent time as a family decorating to the vet’s car for transport to a local pet cemetery.
For a child, a companion animal’s death is often the first experience of death - the first experience of heartbreak that no amount of hugs will make better. Children, unlike adults, generally have little understanding of what death means - literally. My pastor recently shared this poignant story of his three-year-old grandson. While walking through a park at which his grandson had seen a dead bird the last time he was there, he looked up and asked, "Where's the bird, Grandbob, where's the dead bird? Did it become a real bird again and fly away?"
Many well-intentioned adults seek to soften the hard reality of death for children with euphemisms. Fido “was put to sleep,” “went to heaven,” “got sick and died,” or simply “went away.” While these explanations are easier to convey for adults, according to one National Institutes of Health study, children do not generally think and speak in figurative terms until age seven or, in many cases, older. Children, especially young children, hear and understand our words literally.
Most of the above explanations are confusing and suggest Fido is still alive and could potentially return. Even if adults make it clear Fido will not return, a child may experience heightened anxiety and fear the next time she is told it is time to go to bed or is feeling ill. Finally, be cautious when making statements about how much better off or happier a companion animal is now that he’s died.
In Surviving the Heartbreak of Choosing Death for Your Pet, author Linda Peterson suggests this clear and truthful explanation: “When [Fido] died, his body stopped working.”
Explain Death in Age-Appropriate Language
Above all, listen carefully to a child’s musings and questions and be honest. For many adults, discussing death with a child is the equivalent of discussing sex. Years ago, my six-year-old daughter looked up from the paper on which she was writing and asked, “What is sex?” I panicked. Without clarifying her question, I launched into a thoughtful, age-appropriate and lengthy answer, to which she responded, “So, do I check M or F?” She was completing a form sent home from school.
Being mindful of a child’s developmental maturity, answer questions about a companion animal’s death thoughtfully and simply. Do not over-respond, as I did in the example above, and do not hesitate to share that there are some questions for which you do not have answers.
For two- or three-year-olds, simply sharing that Fido has died and will not be returning may be sufficient. Heightened reassurance and routine are recommended.
For four to six-year-olds, the permanence of death may not yet be within their grasp. Children at this age are more likely to believe their own behavior toward their companions - angry words or actions - contributed to the companion’s death. Grief at this age is often expressed through gastrointestinal disturbances or changes in daily habits. It is essential a child be permitted to discuss his feelings through words and pictures as often as necessary and, at the same, be reassured, if a child raises this possibility, his behavior did not cause the death.
For seven to nine-year olds, death’s finality is generally understood. Children at this age tend to be curious and may ask seemingly morbid questions. Grief at this age may manifest in school or friend related problems, withdrawal or excessive clinginess and, sometimes, aggression.
For 10-year olds through adolescents, a companion animal’s death and accompanying grief process is similar to that of adults. Teenagers may vacillate between seemingly mature handling of the death to regression to more childlike responses.
In all cases, be especially tuned into children for whom a companion animal’s death may resurrect past losses.
Grieve with Your Children
Allowing children to be witness to expressions of emotions - especially tears - by adults is essential to learning how to healthily navigate through grief, something all of us experience at one time or another. Author Linda Peterson suggests saying something like, “Max has died and will never be alive again. We will miss Max. Right now we are feeling very sad. It will take time, but after a while, we will remember Max without feeling quite so sad. We will always love Max and remember how wonderful he was and the fun we had with him.”
Memorial or funeral services - at home or in another sacred place - can be extremely significant in the grieving process for most children, with the exception of toddlers, and their families. If possible, involve children in the planning and carrying out of a special time of remembrance.
Use Stories and Art
Children often do not have developed vocabularies to fully express their feelings. Storybooks and art projects such as drawing can provide a window into a child’s heart and mind. There are now a plethora of children’s books and on-line resources available and appropriate for each age group. Judith Viorst’s, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, for example, invites children to recall and celebrate good things about their companion animals after they’ve died.
Get Professional Help, If Necessary
If your child’s behaviors, statements or moods suggest she is not progressing healthily through the grieving process, e.g., she becomes withdrawn, do not hesitate to seek out the assistance of a professional counselor who specializes in working with children, a pastor or one of the many support groups now available for children.
Children Learn from Adults
The death of a family companion animal can be an opportunity to answer their questions in truth and in an age-appropriate manner, to model healthy expressions of sadness and to provide a sacred space for children to fully express their feelings with patience and without judgment. Carefully observing and compassionately responding to children’s unfiltered responses to the death of a companion animal can be even greater teachable moments for the adults in their lives.