End of life decisions – these are the really hard ones
It can be a very difficult decision to make, but eventually, for most of us, we are going to have to choose to euthanase our beloved family pet. Very few animals will pass away peacefully in their sleep and more often than not, the choice needs to be made to let them go and end their suffering. This in itself is a very difficult thing to work through but once you have made that choice – what do you then tell the kids?
There are many different approaches to this dilemma but a few key points have stood out over the years of working as vets. Sharing them here might help you think about how you will handle this situation when the time comes.
Every family is different
It’s very important to start this discussion by remembering that every family is different and every child is different. You know your kids best and will have an instinct for what will be right for them.
There are very few, if any situations in which telling your kids the dog has gone to live on a farm is going to be better than the truth. I once sat discussing this very point with a vet friend when her 35 year old husband piped up with ‘but that’s what happened to our Border Collie Sunny when she got old’. And in that moment, clear as anything, the penny dropped and he realized that Sunny did NOT go and live on a farm. She had died or been put to sleep and his parents had lied to him about it. At 35 he had to go through the process of grieving for a beloved part of his childhood and confront his parents lie. He later told me he felt deeply betrayed. The truth is going to cause hurt but death is a part of life and at some point, the kids are going to have to confront this. It’s better to not have to deal with a lie in addition to that.
Other common phrases that can cause confusion include: ‘gone to sleep’ or equating death with sleep. This may cause some children to fear going to sleep at night. Saying that the pet has ‘gone away’ may also trouble children as they may expect the pet to come back or may fear family members going away in case they don’t come back.
The truth does not have to be too complex
Kids of different ages will have a different understanding of what death means. Giving them the truth does not have to mean giving them all the details. Young children may be happy with a simple truth such as ‘Rex is very old and unhappy so the vet is going to give him some medicine that will help him to die quietly and then he will be at peace’. Young children may ask a lot of questions, trying to work out what this means. Simple answers often are best.
Different ages handle the loss of a pet differently
Younger children seem to be able to assimilate the death of a pet that has been a key part of their family into their future lives. Loss of a pet in adolescence can be far more painful than we might have expected. Being a teenager is pretty tough at the best of times but to then lose the cat that sat on your bed and really did not care what your facebook status is, can be deeply painful. This pain and grief can be deep and often time is needed for kids to work through this. All this is quite normal. For many children a return to the normal routine of life can be a very helpful part of coping with grief. Make sure they understand this is not ‘forgetting’ the pet but is learning to live without the pet.
There are many different approaches to euthanasia
Euthanasia is a painless and peaceful anesthetic overdose. There are several different ways of doing this; at home, at the vets, sedation first, or with a catheter placed into the leg. Your family may or may not want to stay for the final moments. The kids may want to say goodbye then come back in and see the pet afterwards. There a different burial options – at home, cremation or to entrust the body to the vet. Make time to discuss the options with your vet first and with the family. Give the kids time to think about what they might like to do. If they do want to stay with their pet then have the vet sit with them and talk though what to expect. As vets, we will do everything in our power to ease your pet from this life in a way that is best for them and for your family.
Take time to say Goodbye
Burial options or remembrance ceremonies are a very important part of saying goodbye to a family pet. For kids, this animal has often been part of their lives for as long as they can remember and may be their first experience of death. Taking time to acknowledge that can really help.
Kids may bring up stories about the pet over the coming weeks, months and even years. It’s important to remember with them and to celebrate the good times and happy memories with the pet. Let them take time to make drawings, or pin up some photographs.
It’s ok to feel really sad
Let the kids know, and yourself, that it’s ok to feel sad. Pets become furry family members and we bask in their unconditional love and affection. They are often glue that holds us together in tough times, a reason to go out for that walk, a soothing purr in the bed on difficult nights. When we lose them, it hurts and this is normal and OK. Let the kids know that it’s ok to feel pain when they lose a pet. Older kids may feel ‘silly’ in their grief and it’s important that they know that it’s not silly at all but a normal expression of the love they felt for the pet. It’s also OK for kids to just want to get on with it and to not want to spend a lot of time in grieving. This too, is very normal.
For some kids, and adults, the loss of a pet can be especially difficult and there are some excellent resources available to help you and your family navigate this sad time. A few are listed below.
Please remember that while we are not trained grief counsellors, your vets have been through this many times, with many clients and their pets, and with our own pets and families. We are always here to chat and talk thorough the situation with you.