DanvilleSanRamon.com

Living - October 26, 2007

The Pet Vet says... Helping kids say goodbye to their pet

by Dr. Heidi Strand

Q. We have a golden retriever who I'm afraid we may have to put to sleep soon due to arthritis and old age. We've actually been putting it off because of our children. How do I keep them from being traumatized by losing their best friend?

A. Deciding to euthanize your pet gives you much more control over your children's grief than a death where you have no control, such as your pet being hit by a car. You can choose when to say goodbye to your pet and properly prepare your children for the loss. You didn't say how old your children are, but that is an important factor in how they react to a pet's death. Here are some general guidelines:

* It is important not to trivialize a pet's death, as it is usually a child's first experience with death and loss. You should be prepared to answer their questions honestly and openly. It's best not to deceive children, even young ones, about what is happening. Avoid euphemisms that can be confusing, like "put to sleep" or "passed away." Explain euthanasia in age-appropriate terms. Your veterinarian can help explain the process and assess whether older children should attend. Older children may choose to be present, but make sure that they are completely informed about what is going to happen. In my experience, children are most traumatized when they are pressured either to make a decision about whether or not to euthanize the pet, or to watch the procedure when they really don't want to.

* Younger children often need reassurance that they did not cause the pet's illness or death. They may also ask questions about their parents' or their own death. They should understand that feeling bad about their dog's death is completely normal. On the other hand, sometimes children do not appear to be grieving initially. Their minds are still processing what has happened and they will likely revisit the issue in the future. Do not rush to replace the deceased pet until the family has had time to come to terms with the loss. Don't avoid talking about the pet to try to spare your children sad feelings. Talking about the pet - and even crying - can help greatly with the healing process.

* Help your children memorialize their pet. Memorials can take the form of scrapbooks, journals, poems, stories, videotapes or goodbye ceremonies. A simple shoebox can be decorated and serve as a memory box with photos, dog tags, toys, and other things to remember your pet. Consider an engraved plaque, or planting a tree or flower over the grave.

* Often parents have difficulty talking to their children about death. We don't like to see our children in pain and grief. Don't hesitate to bring in outside support if you need to. Teachers, school counselors, family therapists and members of the clergy can be very helpful.

* While losing a pet is always very difficult, you may find this a unique opportunity to teach your children about your family's religion or beliefs concerning life and death. It can be a wonderful consolation for your children to realize that they will never really lose their best friend, because he will be with them in their hearts and memories forever.

--Dr. Heidi Strand is a veterinarian for the East Bay SPCA in Dublin. She has lived in the Tri-Valley for 10 years with her family and an assortment of four-legged friends. Questions can be mailed to 315 Diablo Road, Suite 100, Danville 94526; or e-mailed to hstrand@eastbayspca.org. Her column runs every other week.

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