Monday, August 13, 2018

Pet Loss: Involving Children in the Euthanasia Decision

[Reviewed and updated December 8, 2022]

As an adult or child, experiencing grief means to 'feel,' not just to 'understand.' Anyone old enough to love is old enough to grieve. Even before children are able to talk, they grieve when someone loved dies. And these feelings about the death become a part of their lives forever. ~ Alan D. Wolfelt

A reader writes: Last month our family dog was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. Soon after, my husband and I spoke with our now 7-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter about our dog's cancer. We shared that she would not get better from it and that she would go to heaven. Our dog is in increasing, uncontrollable pain now, and I expect we will euthanize her soon. I read an excerpt of yours regarding preparing children for pet loss. You recommend involving the children in the decision of euthanasia and being present when it occurs. Do you recommend this for children that are our kids' ages?
I am concerned that my daughter, especially, may come away thinking we might euthanize her if she gets hurt or sick. Can you give me some guidance on how to handle this situation with my children? Thank you so much for your time and consideration. 

My response: My dear, I'm so sorry to learn of the terminal illness of your family dog, and I deeply appreciate your concern about how to handle this situation with your children in a positive manner.

You say that you've read an excerpt or quotation of mine regarding preparing children for pet loss. I’m not sure which article you’ve read, or where you found it, but I’m going to assume that you’re referencing my article, Helping Children Cope with A Pet’s Euthanasia, in which I made the following statement:
Encourage children's involvement in the pet's euthanasia. Let them be present during the procedure if they so choose. The reality of a peaceful death is far less traumatic to children than their terrible fantasy of it. Encourage children to see their pet after death, which reinforces the reality and removes the mystery and fear of death.
The point I’m making here is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with letting a youngster be present when a pet is euthanized, as long as the child wants to be there, the parents want their child to be there, and the veterinarian is willing to include the child in a caring and positive way. If you read the entire article, you'll find that I also make the point that children (and adults, too, for that matter) should be prepared for what will happen and what to expect ~ preferably by meeting with the veterinarian in advance of the procedure. Nowadays some veterinarians will actually come to the family home to perform euthanasia, if that is desired by the family. (If your vet doesn't offer this service, you can ask for a referral to one who does.) Some of the most beautiful moments I have witnessed are those in which the entire family is present during a pet’s carefully planned euthanasia, as they are lovingly guided through the process by a caring and experienced veterinary staff.

Of course this is not a choice that everyone will make, and I would not presume to tell any parent what should or shouldn’t be done in any given situation ~ because so many variables must be taken into account, and nobody knows the child better than the parents of that child. Nevertheless, I think it's important for parents to know that, when certain conditions are met, there is nothing wrong with permitting a child to be present during a pet's euthanasia, and if handled properly, it can be a profoundly moving experience for all concerned.

You might be interested in reading some of the other articles I’ve written on grief and loss, which will give you a broader view of my experience in and perspective on such matters. Take a look at the links listed on these pages: Marty's Articles, Children, Teens and Grief and Pet Loss. See especially Explaining Death to Children and Explaining Death to a Toddler

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