“So, how do you handle the death of a pet when your child is older than 7 years?” asked a client after reading my previous blog, When a Pet Dies. Good question.
As children grow and mature, they begin to understand death differently. Children older than 7 years are able to see death as permanent. The dead pet is not coming back, ever. But the child is still young in his understanding, so he could engage in what is known as “magical thinking.” What he thinks, actually could happen. For example, he might wish a pet were dead because he chewed up a toy, and then coincidentally, the pet dies. A child this age could feel responsibility for the death, correlating what he thought with what happened. You can imagine how guilt-producing this kind of magical thinking can be.
While older children do understand death’s permanence, that the pet is not alive somewhere else (“in the country”), or expect the pet magically to come back, it remains difficult to accept the reality. Children, like adults, can go through the normal stages of mourning and grief—denial, bargaining, anger, guilt, depression, and finally, acceptance.) Because they are children, their grief can also manifest in other ways.
An older child might:
- Experience a regression (bed wetting, melt downs, thumb sucking, etc..)
- Generalize the loss to himself, having issues with separation and even fears of abandonment.
- Develop concerns about his own mortality as well as about those who love and care for him.
- Withdraw from his normal daily life, appearing to be unusually quiet, not wanting to be with friends, not being interested in school and extra-curricular activities.
- Develop concerns and fears heretofore not experienced. Remember, the capacity for expanded thought that accompanies maturing cognition can lead to all kinds of ideas not previously imagined.
For children 5 years and older, it is within the realm of typical for a pet’s death to stimulate a heightened curiosity about the details of death—what happens to the body, is there a dog heaven, what does the pet’s body look like after it is buried. This child may be intent upon seeing the body of the deceased pet.
How your older child will react to the news of a pet’s death or the need to put the pet down is, however, unpredictable and will vary. Each child will react in his own way, based on his development, his emotional state, and his life experience. Only you, the parent, know how your older child will process the pet’s death or pending death.
With older children, the following suggestions may be helpful:
- Honesty is the best practice, as always.
- Use real words and be prepared to explain them. “The vet is going to euthanize Buddy Dog,” is honest and better than “put him to sleep” or “put him down.”
- Remind the child of the pet’s advanced age or that he had a problem that the vet could not fix. “The parts of Buddy’s body that he needs to live are no longer working. He is starting to die.” Or when there is illness, “Because parts of Buddy’s body are not working right, he is not comfortable and he has a lot of pain. He cannot live anymore. The vet is going to help him to die peacefully, and he won’t be in pain.”
- Be prepared to explain euthanasia, gently. “Euthanasia is the process of ending the pet’s life that is done by a vet.” If the child wants more, you can add, “The vet gives the pet some medicine, so he is very calm, almost sleeping. Then he gives him an injection of medicine that stops his heart from beating and his lungs from breathing. The pet doesn’t feel a thing. He quietly dies. It is very peaceful.” Be sure to explain that it is only animals that sometimes get euthanized. (This is not time for the assisted suicide discussion.)
- The older child may want to say goodbye. Depending upon your child, such closure can be very important. Whether your child can observe the life ending process will depend upon you and your child and your vet.
- Answering the question of what happens to the pet’s body is loaded for all children. The idea of cremation can be quite unsettling even to an older child. And again, the answer will be different for every child. “The vet cremates the pet’s dead body, and it becomes ashes” is a good start. Rather than being too descriptive, if you choose to go this route, it is best to wait for the child’s questions and answer them truthfully and minimally. Keep in mind that words like burn, fire, and oven conjure up some powerful and scary images for the child.
- Honor the pet’s memory. A memorial service is a lovely way to introduce the child to one of our culture’s rites of passage, the funeral. It also helps the child to build happy memories of the pet, as you recall all the things you loved about him.
- Take time to miss your pet and don’t rush to get a replacement pet. Experiencing and managing sadness is part of your child’s growing emotional literacy.
- Remind your child that in time, she won’t feel quite so sad. While she will always remember Buddy Dog, in time the hurt won’t feel so bad.