Close Bonds

Losing a pet is devastating. Parents should offer simple, gentle explanations. (June 6, 2014)

Throughout the last, long night of Oscar's life, it was clear to my husband and me that he was dying. Our wonderful cat, an incredibly loyal companion for almost 18 years, didn't deserve to be wasting away, confused and uncomfortable. When the boys woke-up, we gathered around our beloved pet, all crying, to say goodbye to him. "This is it, guys," I said. "I'm taking him to the vet and he isn't coming back." Our 8-year-old looked at me quizzically and said, "He isn't dead yet," prompting our first in-depth discussion about euthanasia. But, in dealing with the stress and grief of Oscar's rapid, unexpected decline, I hadn't thought this talk out, and bumbled my way through explaining an extremely heavy topic, one that's difficult for a child to grasp.

"Describe it as, 'Our old friend is suffering. He's very sick. He's not going to get any better. We've done everything we can,'" says Dr. Marci Mariano, of Ridge Hill Animal Hospital in North Haven, who often helps clients prepare for this difficult conversation. She recommends keeping the words honest and simple with children: "If we try to over-explain, we lose them. Oftentimes they don't need as much explanation as we think they do." Experts say the term "put to sleep" can cause fear in a child. Mariano, a mother of two young kids, ages 3 and 6, advises parents to say "special medicine" helps a pet die peacefully. "I usually make it seem like they're going to be with other pets. I think that helps the kids, too," she says.

During the talk, I said: "This doesn't happen with humans, just pets." Our 10-year-old said, "Why is that?" I didn't answer him, just wasn't ready to address this difficult, controversial issue that was recently debated in the Connecticut legislature. Mariano says, like we walk and feed pets, we sometimes need to help them in the end. "Pets depend on us to take care of them and make decisions for them," she says, noting that she regularly has this deep discussion with clients. "I can't tell you how many people say, 'I wish I could have done this for my dad,' or someone who they watched suffer for months and months." Sometimes parents ask if they should bring children to the procedure. Mariano believes this is an individual decision, based on family dynamics.

Losing Oscar was an extremely sad but important milestone for our boys, as they experienced real grief for the first time. About four months after he died, we adopted a puppy. Little Lucy is now filling our home with boundless, youthful energy, healing our hearts everyday…her dancing paws reminding us that life is for living.