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Communicating with your child about the death of a family pet

December 18, 2013

I am an animal lover. For years, my pets were my “furry kids.” I played with them, loved them, and took care of them. They were my babies, especially my favorite cat, Zip. Then, like many other parents, I had an actual baby, and my “furry children” sort of slipped off their high-status pedestals!  However, Zip was always special to me. She was a true member of our family.

A few months ago, I noticed she wasn’t eating much, and she looked like she had lost weight. She just didn’t seem to be doing well, and we all knew that at fifteen years old, she was getting older. So, I took my “old lady” to the vet, and after some tests, it was confirmed that she was experiencing kidney failure and was not going to live much longer.

Explaining to our son that Zip was dying

The weeks that followed were challenging. Deep down, I knew it would not be long before we didn’t have her with us anymore. I knew that this was how life went and that it would be hard, but it was inevitable. What I didn’t really know was how to talk to my son about it.

I knew I was going to cry. I knew I was going to be sad. I knew him seeing me cry was going to upset him. My husband reminded me that it’s okay for your kids to see you sad sometimes. These were “life lesson” moments that as a family, you just have to face together.

My husband kindly offered to “take the lead” on the talk we needed to have with our son. The three of us sat down and my husband gently, but honestly, let my son know what was happening. He told my son that Zip was sick and she was slowly dying. This was because she was old and her body didn’t work too well anymore. This was a sad thing, but a normal thing, because everyone and everything eventually dies.

My son, of course, had lots of questions, and my husband patiently answered every single one of them.

After all the questions had been answered, our son seemed to be sad, but overall okay. All kids are different, and he seemed to sort of just take this in stride.  However, I noticed in the days that came, he paid extra attention to Zip and would pet her more often. A few times, I walked into a room and found him talking to her, something I hadn’t really known him to do before. I could tell that he was coping with the fact that he wasn’t going to have much more time with her.

Facing our beloved cat’s death

As a family, we started talking about what the next step was. Zip’s health was continuing to decline, and we were faced with the tough decision of putting her to sleep. One morning, a few weeks ago, after a particularly rough night with her, we decided it was time.

This meant it was time for another talk. Again, my husband took the lead on explaining what it means to “put an animal to sleep” to our son. And again, many questions flowed, and we patiently and slowly answered every question.

Remembering Zip after she had passed

After Zip was gone, we talked about things we liked about her, things we’d miss about her, even things that annoyed us about her. We laughed about some of her funny “older kitty” ways. My son saw me cry, and I could tell he didn’t like it. He tried to make me laugh immediately by saying something funny. I reminded myself that it’s okay that he sees me cry and feel sad sometimes. It’s part of life.

My takeaways from this experience

This experience reminded me that when it comes to the subject of death, children often have a lot questions and a lot of feelings. They might be sad, angry, confused, or might not show much emotion at all. Their feelings might come out in other ways. You may hear them talking with siblings or friends, they may draw or write about it, or express their feelings through their play. They may continue to ask about the pet and/or death weeks or months later.

It’s important to honor them by giving them the opportunity to ask their questions and providing them with honest answers. Hearing “a pet is going to sleep” can be confusing to kids. Sometimes, it seems like parents worry that the truth will be too sad for kids and will want to protect them. But not being truthful can lead to anxiety and feelings of distrust towards parents.

Since Zip was a large part of our family life, we decided to have a little “service” for her. We gathered up different things that reminded us of her, her food dish, her favorite toy, and her favorite treats, and put them in a box that we buried in our backyard. This isn’t something that I think every family should or needs to do - it’s just what worked for us as a way to work together to remember her. I encourage families to do what works for them, and remember to share their feelings, thoughts, and questions with each other, even though it’s challenging.

Have you had to face saying goodbye to a family pet?  How did you and your family handle it?