by Dr. Herb Friedman
The subject all too often comes up about how to tell young children about the death of a pet. Unfortunate as these events are, they do occur as all living things are equally and extremely susceptible. As a veterinarian in the U.S., I have often had the sad task of telling a pet-owner of the demise of his pet.
I personally think this is the worst part of medicine, veterinary or otherwise. Some people do not have children and the pet takes that special role a child would have in the home.
Many older people keep pets for companionship whereas young families very often want a pet specifically for their children. An older person is usually mature and although the grief is not diminished merely because of maturity, at least the person involved can try and be rational about the situation.
However, it is most difficult to explain death to a young child. If the tot is too young, probably the absence of the pet will not be noticed to any large degree and the sadness from the loss will be short.
Children of early school years will have to be given some explanation of the loss, however. In America, I often discussed with other veterinarians how to handle this sad situation. I believe it most unfeeling simply to tell a child bluntly his or her pet has died.
After a certain age, the story that the pet was summoned to “doggy or kitty heaven” is not acceptable. I handle the situation in this fashion: If the pet is very old or suffering from a severe condition that leads me to believe its days are numbered, I tell the children the pet is very sick and will have to stay in the hospital where we will do everything possible to make the animal better.
I present the “people analogy” in that sick people go to the hospital because doctors are able to do a much better job there than they can in the home. This is readily acceptable and palatable to the child.
Then, after all medical or surgical aid (if any is undertaken) has been given and the animal either dies or has to be “put to sleep,” I explain to the child (or preferably have the parent explain) that the pet went to sleep and did not wake up.
I assure the child that the pet suffered no pain and try to associate “sleep” with the common natural phenomenon —not something sudden and sad. I believe that if the a child knows that his pet went to the doctor because it was very sick; that after the doctor tried his best to make the pet letter, the pet went to sleep without any pain. Then the situation becomes less emotional and one in which a younger semi-mature child can accept.
I don’t mean to take over the role of n psychologist because I lack the credentials, but I am definitely strongly against presenting to a child the cruel facts of life with which at a young age he or she is unable to cope with or understand.