We have a beloved dog and two kids, ages 4 and 6. The dog is getting very old and sick and we can see the end of his life approaching. We want to euthanize him before he is in pain, but we are really nervous about how our kids will take it. Should we involve them in the decision? How should we handle the burial? How can we help our kids deal with the death? — Dog’s Best Friends in Petaluma
Dear Dog’s Best Friends: The death of a pet is perhaps the most trying experience for young children who are lucky enough to live free of war, crime, serious illness and poverty. As sad as it will be for your children, it is actually a gift, as it provides an opportunity to deal with death on a manageable scale. It creates the foundation for responding to death when it comes later in life in grave circumstances.
First, I advise you not to involve your children in the decision about if and when to put the dog down. They are not mature enough to weigh the pros and cons and will likely want to prolong the dog’s life as long as possible. This is a decision for adults to make (though I could see involving teenage kids), and your job is to present it to your children as final and in as supportive a way as possible.
That said, I urge you to prepare your kids (especially the older one) by saying that the dog is getting very old and sick and will die soon. Give your kids the opportunity for last special moments with the dog — a walk in a favorite spot, many doggy treats, taking pictures of your kids hugging the dog and letting him sleep on their bed.
I advise burying the dog (or any pet) and having a funeral. It provides an opportunity for marking the farewell, appropriate crying, and a spot where the body will remain. Think of it as a rehearsal for the death of a family member or friend (though hopefully not for years). Your kids may want to use religious language and ceremonies; it’s how all of humanity copes with death. When our dog died, my children followed ancient Egyptian rituals they generated spontaneously, burying him with their most treasured possessions: my son (then age 10) a comic book, and my daughter (7) a Barbie.
After the funeral, make a book with each child. On the first page paste the child’s photo and have her write her name; on page 2 place a photo of the whole family. Page 3 is for a photo or your child’s drawing of the dog. Have her write or dictate a description of the dog. Use several pages to write and illustrate (best to have kids draw on every page) the greatest things about the dog, favorite activities together, family dog stories, etc. Save a page to be completed a little later on what was annoying about the dog (peed on the rug, ate my homework).
Next, write down your child’s response to the opening sentence: “My dog died, and that makes me feel…” On the following pages, write: “This is what I think about dying” and “What my parents/aunt/teacher/rabbi said about dying.” Add other pages, for instance: “What books say about dying,” ”Other things (animals and people) I know who have died,” and, finally, “If I could talk to may dog now, I would say…” (Note: I have published such a workbook. You may contact me about purchasing a copy.)
Let your child set the pace. She may want to do the whole book in one or two intensive sittings, or only one page at a time. Your younger child may want to “play funeral” over and over. Encourage this and listen for any exaggerated fears or unrealistic notions. Gently address and correct these at an opportune time.
Some kids bounce back fast, while others nurse their grief for a long time. In either case, the key is for them to know they can ask you any question they might have and come to you for comfort. Hold off on suggesting a new pet for at least a few weeks. Don’t rush your kids or yourself.
Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via firstname.lastname@example.org.