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Children & Pet Loss

Children often form extremely close bonds with pets, and the loss of that pet can be confusing, sad, and scary for them. Often the loss of a pet is the first experience with death and grief for a young person. As parents, we know we can't protect our children from all the pain in the world, and going through the loss of a pet as a family can be an opportunity for growth and teach important lessons about life, love, gratitude, and resilience. 


Parents often grapple with the decision of having children present for euthanasia. Allowing children to be present gives them a chance to say goodbye to the pet and can give them a sense of control and inclusion. The home euthanasia process is a gentle one; explaining what will happen in simple terms and allowing children the choice to be present or not as well as giving them permission to change their mind can also empower them. 


On the other hand, parents may choose not to have their children present to be able to focus on the pet and their own grief process, which is also a very valid decision. It can sometimes be helpful to have another family member or friend present who can focus on the needs of the children, or take them away from the home altogether. 


Children can be included in the pet loss process in other ways, such as creating memorials for the pet in the form of scrapbooks, letters, poems, or planting a garden; making a “pet bucket list;” participating in a memorial ceremony and lighting a candle; telling stories about the pet; or helping choose the pet's final resting place or a favorite toy or blanket that should stay with the pet. Having non-verbal outlets to express their grief is especially important for children, and creative activities, projects, and outings can be particularly helpful for them. 


As a parent, be open and honest and use clear, simple, and gentle language such as “Teddy's body isn't working anymore and is trying to die, but it hurts him. A doctor needs to help him die so he doesn't hurt anymore.” 


Keep communication open, and respect each child's unique process. Some children may be inconsolable for days or weeks, while others may go back to happily playing with their toys within a few hours. It's okay to cry, feel sad, angry, relieved, or any other feelings. Naming all those feelings they're experiencing can also help kids cope as they go through the grief process. Parents sharing their own feelings and being open to talking about them can help validate the emotions a child experiences. 


Don't be afraid to ask for help. If you feel overwhelmed with supporting your kids in their grief, try to utilize the help that exists, such as a support group, the counselor or social worker at your child’s school, or online resources. Take care of yourself, as well. Grieving is hard work, and simultaneously taking care of other people while you are grieving can be tough. Be kind to yourself and give yourself a break—no one is perfect and it’s okay if you stumble along the way. The fact that you care and are trying is really what matters for your kids.

More Helpful Links

An excellent guide from The Ohio State University

A great resource from Colorado State University

The National Center for Grieving Children & Families

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