Having a pet can be one of the most significant experiences of a child's life. There are many benefits for children in owning a pet. For example, children with a pet of some sort demonstrate more self-confidence and lower levels of stress than children who do not have pets. They are also less likely to develop allergies (animal-related), hay fever, and asthma. In addition, learning how to take care of a pet can teach them a great deal about responsibility.
There is another lesson that pets may ultimately teach children as well, however. Most common types of pets have a significantly shorter life span than their owners. Gerbils live for approximately two years; and those goldfish that so many children bring home as prizes from carnivals and fairs come in disposable bags for a reason. The fact is, the chances are extraordinarily good that if your child has a pet to love, he or she will also have to experience the death of that pet.
For many children, the loss of a pet is their first experience with death, so helping your child to prepare, and coping with their feelings are critical actions for a significant experience that your child most certainly will encounter at some point with other loved ones in their lives.
1. Prepare yourself first so that you will be able to be open and honest with your children. On any topic imaginable, your children bombard you with dozens of questions, and the topic of your pet's impending death will be no different; in fact, expect it to generate even more questions. Be prepared that some of your children's questions may strike you as somewhat crude or inappropriate, and try your best not to let your own grieving keep you from continuing to answer even those questions in an open and honest fashion. (Our son asked some questions of us that were difficult for us to answer, such as, "Will Gromit's eyes stay open when she dies?" "Will she bleed at all?" As hard as it was for us to respond to those questions, it was important for our son to hear the answers and reassure himself in his own mind of what his beloved pet would be going through.)
2. Your children may not all respond the same way to your pet's death, and this is especially true when each child's age is taken into account, so when you are answering questions or breaking the news to your children, be prepared with age-appropriate answers (younger children may not need as much or the same type of information as older children may require). Be prepared also, that each of your children may respond in a different way: one of your children may feel the need to retreat for some time alone, another of your children may react by being especially clingy. You will need to be respectful of what their particular needs are, and patiently give them the time they need to grieve. The time it will take each child to come to terms with your pet's death will be different as well. While it may be difficult for your older child for weeks, or even months afterward, your younger child may seem to have forgotten about it quite quickly.
3. While discussing what will happen to your pet, choose what you say carefully, because children are quick to leap to conclusions that you may never have intended. For example, it is better to try to avoid the expression 'put to sleep' with children. For adults, that expression evokes a peaceful, painless death, but for children, especially younger ones, use of that expression may cause them to be fearful of sleeping themselves, or of anesthesia for surgery. It's better to use an expression with them such as "The doctor will help Fluffy to die peacefully and without pain."
4. Your children will most likely also wish to know why their pet must die, and this is a critical explanation for many of them. Be open and honest with them about your decision. If your pet is sick all the time, or can't walk or run or play anymore, or is so old that they've gone blind or deaf and can't eat anymore, share that information with your child. Be prepared that your child may make another leap to "Well, Grandpa or Grandma's really old, how come they're not doing that for them?" This is a tricky question to field, and one that our oldest son asked us on several different occasions as we were preparing to euthanize our dog. On one occasion, we told him that Grandma and Grandpa were still able to do all the things that they loved to do without suffering so much, and that our dog was suffering too much to do anything at all, even enjoy a treat. On another occasion, we spoke quite frankly with him about the idea that euthanasia was an act of love for our beloved pet that we are not allowed to share with people-we were able to show our pet one last time how much we loved her by allowing the doctor to end her suffering. That was all the information our son needed.
5. You should prepare your child, if they want to know (our daughter did not want to know any details, and we respected her wishes) for what exactly the euthanasia process will involve for your pet, and if he or she wishes to be present, make that opportunity available, but only if you feel that you will be able, yourself, to be strong for your child. Watching you cry, or be sad is one thing, but watching you completely fall apart and become hysterical during your pet's final moments would be traumatic for your child.
6. Involve your child in the decision about the disposal of your pet's remains after euthanasia. When my daughter's beloved goldfish died after four years, nothing less than a state funeral would do for her, complete with a cross marking the spot where the little fish's remains were buried in the yard. When my son's snail died, he was blithely unconcerned about the disposal of the remains, preferring simply to chuck the empty shell in the garbage. Each child, and each pet, is different, to be sure, but the important thing is to keep your child involved so that they have the opportunity to be a part of the decisions. Do not force rituals or an unwanted means of disposal (garbage can, toilet) on your child.
The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all", and this is perfectly well-illustrated in the loving relationship between children and their pets. Pets teach our children so much about love and life―they are so much better for having had that special relationship. And when it is time for our children to say goodbye to them, pets can also teach our children a tremendously important, albeit difficult, lesson about the death of someone they love, and how to accept their loss and grief in a healthy way.