Recently, I went on an odd house call. I was quietly led through a side-yard gate, ushered silently through a lush garden and ultimately secreted into a cozy, well-appointed pool house.
The purpose of my visit, as with so many of our house calls, was the euthanasia of one of the household’s animals. The point of all the surreptitiousness, however, was more to do with ensuring that the children—4 and 8 years old—weren’t exposed to the event taking place only 15 yards from their all-consuming Dora the Explorer experience.
Which struck me as rather strange. After all, death is a part of life, one we’ll all have to face at some point. And frankly, because it seemed odd that people enlightened enough to want their pet euthanized at home would hold out on their kids on something so … well … important, life-altering and potentially growth inspiring.
But then some degree of eccentricity is to be expected when it comes to something as personal and gut-wrenching as the death of our beloved pets. We know it from our own experiences too, right?
So it is that we can, in most cases, forgive any stray peccadillo we may expose in the awkward throes of our clients’ grief. That’s my take, anyway.
Yet many days after this particular event, I found myself kicking it around in my head: Were these kids ever informed of their pet’s death? I couldn’t help but think they’d been cheated somehow. Or worse—as if their parents had not only created conditions for anxiety-provoking confusion, but deliberately conspired to deprive them of a crucial life experience, to boot.
Not that I’m challenging anyone’s parenting skills. Trust me, as the single mom of a teenager, I’m sensitive to the intrusion of others’ best intentions. Nonetheless, I do hold strong opinions on the subject of pet death and the underage set.
Though they’re mostly unsolicited and therefore kept to myself, my clients will occasionally ask me to reveal them.
“What should I tell my kids?” they often ask. Here’s what I tell them when they do:
#1 Children deserve to know.
Just as I believe every pet owner deserves the entire truth of her pet’s condition—no exceptions, of course—every child deserves to know that her pet has died or has been euthanized. And, for the love of God, be honest about it. Never tell a child the veterinarian did it because I could not save him.
Making the vet out to be the devil in a case where no one deserves any blame (’cept the pathology itself) is insulting and bad for animal health in the long run.
#2 Clients should be age-appropriate with their word choices.
Though the words they use will doubtless vary with age, any child old enough to have a relationship with a pet is old enough to be informed that the pet has passed.
#3 Waiting for the “right time” is almost always a bad idea.
Why some parents wait is a mystery to me. The fact that a vacation is coming up or her violin concert is looming is no good excuse.
Case in point: I’ll never quite get past the fact that my mother waited for the conclusion of my final exams my first semester at college before telling me our childhood Lab had died. I totally get why she did it, but I don’t believe it was the right approach.
#4 They shouldn’t obfuscate, hedge or mince much.
Give it to them straight, just as in 1-2-3 above. Kids can end up feeling betrayed when they’re left out of the loop. And feelings of betrayal don’t help kids cope and heal. Nor do they endear them to veterinary services in general.
Now, that doesn’t mean parents have to describe every last gasp (when they found the pet dying under a tree in the yard, for example) but they do have to provide some context, the details of which will inevitably vary according to their child’s age.
Keeping them informed throughout a pet’s illness also helps prepare them, I explain, so imparting all those details in real-time applies, too. No one likes sad surprises, children least of all.
#5 On being present for euthanasia…
Whether to be present when a pet is euthanized is among the most intimate issues involved in pet-keeping. So it is that whether kids should be present or not seems especially fraught for many parents. Indeed, it’s a rare kid of any age I see at a euthanasia visit.
Yet I personally think there’s something really off about this. If it’s within their own personal values and practices to remain present then I believe it’s fitting for them to impart those values to their children by having them attend, too.
However, this obviously depends on some personality-specific issues and age-appropriate concerns. In my opinion, however, most kids over the age of reason are good candidates for being present at a euth.
#6 Pets are practice.
Pets really are practice in a way. After all, the death of a pet is surely a softer blow than the death of a close relative, wouldn’t you agree?
And I believe that when kids learn to ponder death through their pet experiences, it tends to make them stronger individuals who process death better when they’re tested later on in life. It’s one way veterinary medicine contributes to human mental health, in my opinion.
#7 What to say…
Here’s most everyone’s sticking point: How to deliver the news that illness is looming, death is impending, and/or the pet has passed. And again, what’s actually spoken necessarily varies depending on the individual’s personality, the closeness of the child-pet relationship, and the kid’s age. However, as long as you use age-appropriate language, the fundamentals are the same. Here’s how I counsel my clients:
Do: Speak plainly and with as few euphemisms as possible. (Definitely use the “D” word.)
Do: Take the time to impart your own personal beliefs about death and the afterlife (or lack thereof).
Do: Share your feelings but, if possible, it’s always best to save the serious breakdown moment until after the kids’ feelings are squared away.
Do: Be willing to accept any sign of aloofness in kids as a common coping mechanism. Asking for a new pet immediately is another frequent request so try not to take it too hard if your kids ask.
#8 Opportunity for closure.
Hold a service, say a prayer, plant a tree … it all works.
#9 Concrete reminders.
Cremains, clay paw prints and professional-quality portraits are great but even a simple lock of fur will do. Kids often need these more than we think they do.
It might be hard to do immediately but recalling past pets is a profitable family pastime. Tell a funny story over dinner and encourage them to do the same. Repeat regularly.
Though they also require age-appropriate sensitivity and a careful communication of values, we would all do well to remember that kids are just like the rest of us. And what any of us needs when it comes to dealing with pet death is honesty, mutual respect and an opportunity to process and grieve in a safe and supportive environment.
Dr. Khuly is a mixed-animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at drpattykhuly.com.