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May 19, 2008

Losing a Pet: Helping your kids say goodbye

When our big guy, Ryan, was about 6 years old, we decided to give away his black lab, Apollo. We were going away for a few months, and we realized we really weren't at home enough to have a dog. We really blew it, though—we decided not tell Ryan about our decision until after we had already given Apollo away.

Ryan never got to say goodbye, and he was devastated. To this day, whenever we see a black lab he'll remind us of how hurt he was.  Ron and I learned our lesson, and now we always make sure to communicate with our kids about the loss of a pet, whether through an illness or a voluntary separation.

For advice on how to talk to your kids about the sensitive topics of pet care issues and coping with the loss of a pet, we interviewed Dr. Shoshana Dayanim, a developmental child psychology expert. Here are her tips:

  • If your pet has to be euthanized,…
    "Make sure your child understands that even though you're "putting the dog to sleep", your pet will not in fact be sleeping, and that this is being done to save your pet from pain," Dr. Dayanim said. "This may be a good time to discuss your personal beliefs concerning death, if you deem your child old enough. Whatever you choose to discuss, keep it as simple as possible. If your child wants to know more, she will ask."
  • If your pet dies in its sleep,…
    "It's important to remember that, as a parent, you know your child best and know how much information your child can handle," Dr. Dayanim said. "However, try not to underestimate your child by buying a 'replacement' pet to hide the truth that her pet has died. You should also remember that details are not necessary. A good rule of thumb is that if your child doesn't ask, don't tell them.  A young child may ask "why did Max die?" Replying "because he was very, very old and very, very sick" may be enough. When an older child inquires about their pet's death, he may want to know more details about the pet's illness, and may even ask why the pet had to go to the Vet to die."
  • If you have to give your pet away,…
    "If your pet can no longer live with you for whatever reason, explain to your child as clearly as possible that the pet needs certain things that you can't give him, and that he will be happier with another family," says Dr. Dayanim. "Be careful not to blame the pet's behavior as the reason for the separation. Another thing to be sensitive about is that your young child may not understand their pet—who may have been a member of the family for as long as they can remember—is any different than they are. It's important to be careful when using terms like "put to sleep" or "getting rid of." You don't want your child to be afraid that they, too, will be "put to sleep" if they are sick or that you will "get rid of" them if they do something wrong."

Plus, if you're currently dealing with the loss of a family pet—or might be soon—check out these wonderful books, selected by our animal-loving editorial team:

Dog Chapel by Stephen Huneck
Reading level: Ages 4 to 8

A wonderfully illustrated book about the real-life animal memorial built by author Stephen Huneck in his hometown of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, Dog Chapel celebrates the love, memories, and adventures we share with those beloved family members—our dogs. A tear-out frame is included in the back of every book, which your kids can fill with their own pet's picture and send to the chapel to join his or her fellow canine comrades on the chapel's Remembrance Wall.

Good-bye, Baby Max by Diane Cantrell and Heather Castles
Reading level: Ages 4 to 8

Students in a Texas kindergarten class have a sad day when they find out that Max, one of the three baby chicks they've been watching as classroom pets, has died. Written by a former kindergarten teacher and family counselor, this book moves through several valuable lessons for kids about life, death, and the responsibility of caring for a pet.

I'll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
Reading level: Preschool to 2nd Grade

Describing the circle of life with sweetness and humor, this book follows the life of Elfie, a dachshund, as she moves from sprightly puppy to senior dog alongside the boy who loves her, and who tells her every night "I will always love you." When Elfie doesn't wake up one morning, the family buries her in the backyard, and the boy promises that one day, when he's ready for another dog, he will make that dog feel just as special.

Saying Goodbye to Lulu by Corinne Demas and Ard Hoyt
Reading level: Preschool to 2nd Grade

An accessible story about Lulu, a black-and-white mutt, and the little girl who loves her, this book follows a family as they care for an aging and then very sick dog. When Lulu eventually passes, the family reminisces about their memories with Lulu, and validates the little girl's feelings of grief and loss. Since most kids' books have a boy as the central character, this is an especially great kids' book for anyone with daughters dealing with losing a pet.

Jasper's Day by Marjorie Blain Parker and Janet Wilson
Reading level: Kindergarten to 3rd Grade

This story follows a family and their dog, Jasper, who is close to death from cancer--he's lost his sight, his hearing, and can't move around all that well anymore. The parents, knowing the dog must be euthanized, plan an outing to visit all of Jasper's favorite places, before going to the vet together as a family to say goodbye and then burying Jasper in the backyard.

Goodbye Mousie by Robie H. Harris and Jan Ormerod
Reading level: Ages 4 to 8

A preschool boy loses his pet, Mousie, when the mouse dies in his sleep in the middle of the night. The boy plans a funeral, filling Mousie's coffin with keepsakes from their life together, but still doesn't completely understand the meaning of death. With the help and comfort of his parents, the boy starts to understand and vows to get another pet someday—"but just not yet."

Best Cat in the World by Leslea Newman and Ronald Himler
Reading level: 1st Grade to 4th Grade

A fabulous story about a boy named Victor who loses his best friend—his cat, Charlie—and has to learn to bond with his new kitten, Shelley. It's hard for Victor to move past his grief and learn to love Shelley. Eventually, Victor starts to realize that just because Shelley is different from Charlie doesn't mean they can't be friends, and they bond.

Have a favorite book that heals the heart and the home after losing a pet? Share it with the Care.com community by posting a comment!

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Comments

Chris

Sheila, what amazing timing on this article, as we just had to put our beloved Sadie to sleep 2 weeks ago rather suddenly.

My husband and I wrestled with having our children come to the animal hospital to say goodbye, but decided last minute that it would probably be more traumatic for them to see her suffering. I wanted their last night with her, which was sweet and poignant, to be their last memories of her, vibrant and alive.

Although it was probably one of the hardest days of our lives, we all made it through with lots of talking, crying and reminiscing. We still get very misty eyed thinking about our crazy Sadie-Lou, but its getting easier to move into the happy memory stage.

We also decided, as a family, to adopt a shelter dog who needed a good home. That has also helped tremendously. I know it isn't the best solution for all families, but for my two girls, it was the right thing to do - they were used to a dog, and we all felt good about adopting a loving, sweet 7 mos. puppy out of a shelter.

Thank you again for your articles. They really do hit home more times than not!

tanja

Dear Shiela,

I am so sorry for your loss. i had a black lab name bear. i had to give him away too, my husband and i went to my father-in-law's up in michigan and my son who was only 8 months old at the time never got to say good-bye either. now he tries to go up to every black lab and give them a hug. i know it's hard, i cry every night for bear. just be strong. good luck.

Laura Beasley

Although I sympathize with this issue I find it hard to understand why you had to get rid of your pet in the first place. Not being home enough does not seem like a valid excuse in my opinion to get rid of a family pet, especially one you have had for so long. When you decide to take a pet into your family you are making a life long commitment to that animal. If your lifestyle later on becomes incompatible with keeping the animal, because of your commitment to that animal, it is your lifestyle that should be changed, not ownership of the pet. It is a big change for an animal, especially after six years, to be uprooted to a new home. Compare it to having a child, you don't decide when your son is six years old that you work too late so you can't keep him anymore. I have a dog now and if I ever have children I hope they learn that our pets are a permenant part of our family because family is about commitment---through both the good, the bad and, yes, even the inconvenient!

Sheila

I feel pets are part of the family. If you didn't have time for them, like children you shouldn't have had them in the first place. To the end I am cancelling my membership to your service. Perhaps if you had less clients you may have more time for your family. I truely hope you haven't made more committments you cannot keep. Perhaps a better lesson for your son might have been to honor thy family regardless of species.

Alicia Z

I cannot believe that you gave away your dog without telling your son or that you even gave away your dog. You should not ever get another pet again. There are more animals euthanized every year in the US than it would take to stand animal end to end from NYC to Juneau Alaska. I do not understand people like you and hope you never get another pet again. Why dont you just give away your son while your at it.

Jennifer

Personally, I am devastated at the thought that people so easily "give away" their pets. My thoughts are that you are very disconnected with the value of having a pet and therefore completely disconnected to what the meaning of having a pet would be for your children. If you valued having a pet and making them "family", you never would have given them away in the first place or at the very least you would have considered your child's feelings without even blinking an eye. This is why rescue organizations exist (thankfully) and why we will never go out of business!

Sheila

I'm saddened by the responses to this blog post, and troubled both by how it was misinterpreted and that feelings were hurt. I owe you all a better explanation and an apology. It's terrible to be faced with the necessity of having to separate from one's family pet, but what I wanted to highlight was the different ways of dealing with the loss, with grieving, and with helping your children to heal. The last part in particular was the mistake I made as a young parent years ago--underestimating our son's need to grieve for the best friend he'd had for the four months that we had Apollo, before giving him to another family we knew (not a shelter.) I was more concerned about protecting my 6 year old from the harsh reality than I was in actually helping him confront it, and I wanted to help other parents not make the same mistake. Acknowledging loss and giving children a chance to say goodbye is a crucial to step in helping them recover from the loss of a loved one--and it's definitely something I learned the hard way. ~ Sheila

GBussey

I am in agreement with many of the responses I have read. How can anyone take in a pet who is no less a family member. Your lifestyle changed. Make arrangements to accomadate your pet. You didn't. So how could you dare even consider giving a family member away, much less without breaking the news over time to your children. There is no excuse for this and I hardly think it could ever be forgiven. My heart would be broken and I believe I would be very unhappy with you, Mother for a very long time.

A Mother and Pet Owner

I've once said each persons perspective is shaped by experience, and experience is shaped by perspectives.

If that is too hard to understand, let me simplify it: How you look at life or understand topics is developed by your personal experiences in life, and your experiences shape how you view life...

So if you have never needed to give your dog a better home, you probably wont understand someone else needing to.
If you have never needed to put a child up for adoption you probably wouldnt understand someone needing to.
In fact many of the responses reminded my of this; I have said so many times "who would need to give up their own child? I dont care what I would never do that! What kind of mother could do that?!" And of course I was speaking from my own experience... as single mother of two I know how hard it is to care for my children alone. Of course I would never give up my children willingly! No matter how hard it could get.
However that doesnt stop the flow of adoptions of mother/fatherless children out there or the testimonies of those who adopted those children and are forever greatful... all according to their experience. Ones loss is anothers gain. Adoption happens. Pet adoption happens. Its not a bad thing, its a good thing.

Now... if you want to bash about the slaughtering of helpless animals, I'm all for it. And if you really want to show some heart, we can talk about the overwhelming amount of mothers who are slaughtering their young... yes, these are real complaints that go against the very nature of a mother.
But would you really tell someone who was adopting a child how horrible that mother must have been to give that baby up? At least she didnt kill it! And someone adopting a pet wouldnt you congradulate her?

Someone had to give the pet up first...

mom of two

What is wrong with you people. Everyone makes mistakes. You are acting rediculous. It is her choice to make decisions for her family including pets. She doesn't need to apologize to anyone. You all have some pent up anger that would better be dealt with professionally. You can disagree without making rediculous demands like "never get a dog again" and "give away your kid while you are at it" What in the world??? You guys just need to CALM down....

Vicki Wizard

I feel so blessed to have found Care.Com. It's exactly what I've been searching for and I pray we have a long, happy relationship helping many, many people and pets.

CHEERS!

Sarah

I think that everyone is being a little harsh. I too recently had to give my beloved dog away. You people have no idea what happens in our day to day lives. What about a family that loses their home and is forced back into the renters market where most people do not want dogs in an apartment or rented house so what then??? Go live under a bridge because you are that loyal to the animal??? Give me a break. She left her dog with another family that she knew would take care of the dog. If that is not responsible then I do not know what is. Yes a pet is a life long deal and you love them "as" family. But things happen in life that we have no or little control over and sometimes you have to do what is best for the dog. And sometimes what is best is for a new family that has the time and means to raise the dog properly take the dog.

JESS

Thanks for posting advice on helping kids part with a loved pet. We recently got a puppy that we are absolutely in love with, but after 10 days my 4 year old and I began to have seroius skin allergies (imagine full blown poison ivy on top of a sun burn everywhere your dog licks you) and we have to let our new baby go to a new home and family who will be able to interact with him without reservation. Luckily we have a dear friend who put us in touch with a rescue orginization and our puppy will be going to a loving home. It is devestating for the rest of our human family and I appreciate that you had some good advice for helping children cope with the loss. Thank You!

Linda

I have a 5 year old and we surprised her before Christmas with a cat. I have never had a cat and am 42 becoming very ill. How do I tell my daughter we are unable to keep him?

Tara

Some of the people on here are unbelieveable. There are situations that people cannot forsee and unfortunately sometimes have to give up their pets. I myself have a situation where I have to find a home for one of my cats. I was laid off and have to move to a new city and rent a place, where most places don't take pets, I was lucky to find a place that would allow 2 cats, nevermind 3 and so we have to find a home for one of our cats. You people on here going on and on about how a pet is for life, change your lifestyle blah blah, sometimes you can't predict your life and if you need a roof over your head and that place will not allow pets you have no choice. It's is NOT like giving up a child, for you people to say something like that is just ridiculous, and you obviously don't have children or know what you are even talking about.

Ben

One of my first pet memories was of a black lab named Linda. She belonged to the owner of the building where we lived in Brooklyn, N.Y.

I really don't remember how old I was when Linda was abandoned by her owner. I only know that she became a huge comfort to us. She would walk beside us on one side and my Mom on the other as we went to school. Then, at the end of the day, she would be right there with Mom. She never needed a leash and we frequently let her into our tiny tenement apartment; especially when it was cold out.

I don't know how long Linda was with us. I'm also not sure exactly what happened to her. I know only that my stepdad was extremely sad one day when he found her. My mother was crying and I remember looking out the window and seeing him walk to a place where he thought no one could see, with her body draped over his shoulders, in order to bury her and we wouldn't have to see Linda that way.

We all makes mistakes.

The loss of our kitty recently has brought back a lot of very sad memories and I had to eulogize our kitty. But it wasn't enough. I had to read other stories and I'm glad I found this one to help me.

not able to stop crying

i still miss my cat!i know i shount blame my self but i do! if it wasnt for me not keeping him in side last hallween !here is his story...Lukey ran up a tree cause of 4 differnt dogs*shakes fists at owners of those demon dogs*my mom said he will be back he never came back i still cry and sleep witha stuffed animal bought off of amazon*thanks amazon*they helped a little hat was ween 1 was 9 and and 10 going on 11 he was himingway

not able to stop crying

A lot of people say its was just a cat get over it.i tried for over a year i never got to say "goodbye lukey i miss u "i try to get over it i just brekeout crying even at school

Edgar

I'm a dog lover and i treat my pets as a part of my family. It's so sad hearing that some people give away their pets. But we also have to consider some things, or situations why some people doesn't want to continue taking care of their pets.

Whitney

I am a pet lover too. Sometimes we need to give away some of our pets if they are too many for us to take care of them. We can give them to our friends, neighbors who are also interested having a pet. It is better to give them away to our friends or the people we know who can take care of them than to leave them in the street alone with no one to take care and feed them.

Edgar

That's a sad story and I feel really hurt for Ryan because he didn't even had a chance to say goodbye to his dog.
While raising children with pets from an early age often teaches the child compassion, affection and responsibility, there are still guidelines that must be followed when introducing pets and children to each other. In addition, not all pets are ideal for households with small children, and in some cases families should postpone getting pets until their children are mature enough to know how to interact with animals.

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