I was 15 years old when my family put down our dog, Angel. She was the German Shepherd that my family had gotten shortly after my fourth birthday. She and I grew up together, and I loved her more than anything.
But I wasn’t allowed to go with her to the vet that cold October day in 2005. My parents forbid it. They were trying to protect me, of course, but I resented that I wasn’t able to be with her and I still do.
So, when my sister decided that it was time to put her chocolate lab, Hershey, down in October 2019 and was unsure whether or not to let my niece go with him, I encouraged her to allow it – and she did.
My niece Victoria, who is 16, was able to be with the dog that she grew up with in his final moments. And while she says it was hard for her, she is thankful that she was able to say goodbye and comfort him in that moment.
Truth is, when an animal is part of your life for so long, they become part of the family. When they die, it’s like losing a piece of you, and it can be incredibly hard for a child to process this loss.
Here Colleen O’Brien, a clinically trained licensed master social worker and owner of Blue Dog Counseling in Ypsilanti, offers her tips on how parents can help their child get through this difficult part of having a family pet.
Create a plan
If you see your pet’s death coming, O’Brien says a good first step for parents is to be open with their child about what is going to happen.
“Be as transparent, truthful and well-edited as you can be,” she explains. “Young people need a lot less detail than we give them. They really only need enough information to (answer) their question.”
She suggests laying out what is going to happen that day, from start to finish. This should include the location and time of the appointment, where your child will be when this is happening, where you will be during the process and what you are planning to do with your pet’s body – especially if you are planning to bring it home.
If you decide that your child is going to be in the room with his or her pet, it is also important to explain what will happen during the procedure so that he or she knows what to expect.
“There are different degrees of what vets can provide,” O’Brien explains. “Get that knowledge with your vet to see what they can offer to reduce stress for your pet and the people in the room. Then have the vet either educate you, the parents, so you can walk your child through the process or let the vet educate the whole family.”
Parents should also develop an exit plan in case it becomes too much for kids and remind them that it is OK if they need to step away.
“I think talking as a family about what your goals are for the pet – usually to put them out of pain and discomfort – and keeping your goal in mind can help your child,” she adds.
Handling the emotion
Once you have told your child and laid out what is going to happen, you may see a bit of change in them in the days leading up to your appointment.
“Young people are just sad, and they may try to argue with the parent,” O’Brien explains. “We see young people get anxious or nervous.”
Kids may begin to worry for their pet and worry if their pet is scared or worried, too. And, depending on the age of the kids, they may worry if those around them are going to die, as well.
To help them deal with these feelings, O’Brien suggests parents model by reassuring kids that they are upset, too, and that the child’s feelings are valid.
“A lot of times, I hear from parents that they are trying not to cry or be upset and they just tell the child everything is going to be OK. But that can be really confusing to young people,” she says. “Hysterically crying in front of your child will put them under stress, but expressing to them that you are upset and worried too helps them express their emotions.”
When the day comes, parents should stick to the plan they laid out with their child as closely as possible – and should listen to their child when it comes to comforting them.
“Draw on your experience with your child. If your child is comforted by hugs, use that coping tool, that connection. If your child needs space, honor that,” O’Brien says. “The parents may in that moment want to give the child a hug or say something profound, but that child may not need that. So draw on your knowledge with the child and do what is best for them.”
The way in which a child deals with the grief of losing a pet can vary from child to child. Kids may have huge emotional responses to something that might otherwise not have been a big deal. They could experience mood swings, meltdowns or tantrums. And some could even develop physical ailments or show some developmental regressions, like bed-wetting.
“Young people’s response to grief could span every single part of how they operate in the world,” O’Brien says. “The grief one feels, regardless of age, after losing their family pet could be the same, less than or more than the loss of a person.”
It is important that parents talk about the pet and their child’s feelings to help them cope with the death. That said, if that grief gets in the way of the child’s everyday life, it may be time to seek out counseling.
“It’s really important that we normalize the grief that comes along with losing a pet, and society isn’t always willing to meet that grief with open arms – because it’s not recognized as the loss of a family member,” O’Brien says. “It depends on the companionship, and I think we need to be aware of the fact that, for children and parents, this could be a more significant and deeper loss than human family members. And that’s not abnormal.”