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Barbara F. Meltz writes the Globe's Child Caring column. She is author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes, Understanding How Your Children See the World," and a frequent speaker to parent groups. Join her chat on the first and third Monday of the month at noon.
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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

When a pet dies


Abbey, our family dog, is 13. When my son said goodbye to her as he headed back to college after a short break, it didn't take much to imagine what he was thinking: "Will she be here next time I'm home?"

Preparing for a cherished pet's death isn't easy, no matter what age we are. If it's something your family is facing, consider, "Jasper's Day" (Kids Can Press). Beautifully-written by Marjorie Blain Parker, with luscious illustrations by Janet Wilson, it's the story of a Golden who's dying of cancer. I'd recommend it for 4- to 10-year-olds.

Boston Globe,
CHILD CARING, August 5, 1999
By Barbara F. Meltz, Globe Staff


It has been four years since Matt Prescottano's yellow Lab, Pups, was hit by a car, but Matt still thinks about her, still remembers conversations he had with her, and still feels sad, sometimes even when he's playing with his new dog, Magic, who was Pups's puppy. He may have been only 8 when she died~, but Matt still remembers how he didn't believe his mother when she gave him the news and how glad he was that his parents let him see Pups one last time to say goodbye, even though she was already dead.

His parents remember the day well, too, not just for the loss of Pups but also for the depth of Matt's sadness.

His father, Edmund, a Newton veterinarian who frequently guides families through pets' deaths, says it was wrenching to see his son so distraught. ``As much as you know a pet is important to your child, you still may not realize just how significant it is,'' he says.

What parents also may not realize is that the death of any pet can be significant, from a goldfish to a gerbil. And while we typically consider a pet's death a way for children to practice coping with the death of a person, psychologists urge us to treat it with respect and ritual for its own sake.

``Children of all ages have powerful connections to pets that sometimes border on magical,'' says veterinarian Myrna Milani, author of ``Preparing for the Loss of Your Pet'' (Prima Press). How deeply a child is affected will depend in part on how deep the connection is, but even when the connection is minimal, we run the risk of appearing unfeeling and harsh when we throw a dead pet in the trash or flush fish down the toilet. (Not to mention the havoc we can wreak on a toddler who is making the connection between toilets and bodily functions.)

``If your kids talk to their goldfish like mine do, a death means more than if the fish are just pretty to look at,'' says psychologist Genie Ware, a children's grief therapist at the Family Loss Project in Framingham. Her family has had six goldfish funerals, complete with eulogies.

How you help children mourn depends on their stage of cognitive development. Under 6, for instance, they typically don't grasp that death is permanent: They expect the pet to reappear. Teens, however, are at a developmental stage where they think they are immortal. ``For them, having a pet die is very difficult,'' says Milani. ``I bet every vet in the country has a dent in a wall where a teenage boy put a fist through it from the hopeless, helpless feeling of being told a pet is dying.''

Children of any age may cry harder and more for a pet than they did when Grandma or Grandpa died. ``A pet's death is safer for them to cry about,'' says Ware. ``When Grandpa dies, they're afraid that if they cry too much, it will make you cry more, which is scary for them.'' Indeed, a pet's death may stir up a previous loss. Ware suggests asking, ``I know how sad you are about Fluffy. Are you thinking about Grandpa, too?''

It's also possible, however, that a child is sadder about the pet than about the grandparent.

"`For some children, a pet is a sibling. They're closer to it than to a relative who is geographically or emotionally distant,'' Ware says.

As soon as a child is verbal, Ware suggests looking for animal deaths in nature to get across basic concepts: ``See this dead bug? Its body doesn't work anymore. It doesn't get hungry or thirsty anymore. That's what it means to be dead. Once it's dead, it doesn't come alive again.''

Similarly, the dead skunk in the road isn't just something that smells bad, it's a learning experience: ``Sometimes animals don't realize they're wandering onto a road and a driver can't stop in time. It's sad, but it isn't really the driver's fault.''

Tops on Milani's list of how to help children is to think through a pet's death long before it happens, so that we're comfortable with what we want to do and why. ``Children have the hardest time if we're ambivalent,'' she says.

In one family she knows, parents euthanized an older dog because it was biting the children, then shifted responsibility to them by telling people, ``We had to put him down; he was a danger to the kids.'' More frequently, she sees parents who can't make a decision put it in the children's hands: ``He's your pet. What do you want to do?''

Milani is unequivocal. ``This is irresponsible,'' she says. ``It leaves a child thinking, `If it wasn't for me, Spot would still be alive.' The decision for euthanasia belongs to adults. Give children a decision, not a choice.''

Even though talking to our children about ending a pet's life makes most of us uncomfortable, grief therapist Jen Henry of the Life Transitions Center in Buffalo recommends honesty. With toddlers, it's OK to offer a half-truth -- ``Spot died at the vet's'' -- but for preschoolers she suggests embedding the whole truth in your family values: `` `In our family, we believe if a pet is in a lot of pain and the vet can't help anymore, the kindest thing to do is to end her pain by ending her life.' ''

Psychologist Donald Wertlieb, director of the Tufts University Center for Children, offers another explanation: `` `The rules for pets are different than for people. Pets don't eat at the table or use the bathroom, and sometimes when we don't have a way to help a pet get better, the vet has a special medicine that helps her die in a way that doesn't hurt.' ''

Avoid euphemisms, says Wertlieb: ``Equating death with sleep, as in `putting the cat to sleep,' is the source of many sleep disturbances.''

Cherry and James Karlson of Wayland were gently honest with their children, Mark, 3, and 7-year-old twins Katie and Nicholas, when they learned last December that Winston, their 10-year-old golden retriever, had untreatable cancer. ``We pointed out how he wanted to spend all his time on his dog bed instead of running and playing,'' she says. That was something they could see.''

When Winston declined faster than they expected, Cherry told the children that he was very, very sick and in a lot of pain. Because all three are still in a stage of concrete thinking, their first question was: ``How can you tell?'' She was able to answer with equal specificity: ``I spent the night lying next to him, and he whimpered the whole time because he hurts so much.''

On the way to the vet's, Cherry and James talked about what would happen, that the doctor would give Winston a shot that would stop his heart, and then he would be dead. They also gave them the option of watching. This is a controversial call with children this young, but Cherry had her reasons. ``I was 17 when my dog was put down,'' she says. ``I wasn't allowed to be with him and I was devastated, so I wanted my children to at least have that choice.'' Thankfully, she says, they declined.

Although they didn't have a burial, the Karlsons spent a quiet family day, looking at photos of Winston and taking their other dog to Winston's favorite haunts.

Rituals like that are important, says Wertlieb, especially because they give you a basis to answer questions later on, like, ``Where is Spot?'' ``He's not coming back because his body stopped working and he died. Remember, we buried him in our backyard and we planted flowers?''

Most vets and psychologists suggest waiting weeks, if not months, to replace a pet, even a parakeet:

- Families need time not to repeat past mistakes. When you replace quickly, you tend to get the same pet, breed, and sex. With more time to reflect, you may decide that wasn't the best match. For instance, says Milani, ``Maybe the dog got run over because you were careless because your lifestyle is too busy.''

- Children need time not to worry. Milani says a common thought goes something like this: ``If Mom and Dad can replace Spot so quickly, could they find a new kid, too?''

- They need time to mourn. Quick replacement demeans the relationship with the previous pet and can make a child feel disloyal, preventing her from bonding with the new pet.

Matt Prescottano got a puppy very quickly, but only because a family that had taken one of Pups's pups couldn't keep her. That took his mind off Pups, but not entirely.

``Pups was my first dog,'' he says. ``I love this one, but my first dog was different. She'll always be my most special.''

Meanwhile, he offers this advice to other kids whose dog dies: ``Make sure everyone at school knows about it. You will have some very bad days, and it's good if they know why.''


- If your children are 10 or older and your pet is aging and infirm, draw up a living will to decide how far your family is willing to go if he becomes incapacitated. For instance, who will wake up with him if it's necessary during the night?

- If a child asks, ``Why did my pet get cancer/get hit by a car?'' here's a possible answer: ``We don't always understand why some things happen in life, but there's one thing we know for certain: You loved Spot and Spot loved you, and we're thankful we had him in our lives.''

- Include children in decision-making about the funeral: ``Where should we bury him? What kind of service can we have?'' If a burial isn't possible because the pet is too large or your town forbids it, have a service.

- Explain cremation to preschoolers very simply: ``The vet has a special way of disposing of Spot.'' With school-age children, focus more on the result than on the process: ``Some people bury an animal, some cremate him in a high-temperature oven and take the ashes and sprinkle them someplace special, like on his favorite field. Any ideas where we should do that?''

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 03:51 PM
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