Thursday, September 30, 2010


It’s bad enough that we as adults have to deal with the death of a beloved pet or have to face the decision to have them put them to sleep, but helping a child deal with it makes it a whole lot harder.

I’m dealing with this right now. I mentor a teenage girl who is problematic and emotionally immature to begin with. She comes from an abusive background and was taken away from her mother and doesn’t know her father. For the last several years she was raised by her beloved grandparents. Both of them died last year and in their will they left her their old dog, "Baby Doll." No she’s not a German Shepherd, but nevertheless loved just the same. This girl has this very old dog and a much younger one as well. To make a long story short, just recently "Baby Doll" was diagnosed with cancer and she hasn’t been doing well this past week. She’s been to the vet and has an appointment to be put to sleep this Monday.

As I said this girl has many problems to begin with and especially has an abandonment issue. On top of it she is in a special needs class in high school where she is bullied and picked on. I correspond with her every single day (and I never met her, nor does she live in my state), but she’s attached herself to me and I try to be there and help her the best that I can. She has been very challenging to say the least. But now she’s has been handed another blow and that is dealing soon with another loss, her beloved grandmother’s dog. The only love this child knew was the love of her grandparents and now losing their dog is just about too much for her.

So she’s asking me a million and one questions to help her understand about the process of putting an animal to sleep and wondering if "Baby Doll" will go to Heaven. Oh if only I had a magic wand and could make the pains of the world go away……but alas, that’s not ever going to happen.

So having to prepare her for Monday and the “putting to sleep” of "Baby Doll" is one of my more challenging things that I have to deal with especially because she’s there and I’m here. She will be confused and even frightened by seeing the lifeless body of her dog after the euthanasia is performed. She told me that she’s decided to stay with her when they put her to sleep. I don’t know if she’ll be strong enough for this, but she was with her grandmother when she died as well and she’s still carrying the weight of that around her shoulders all the time. I know God put this girl in my life for a reason, but "Oh Lord, this one keeps me on my knees!"

It is best to be honest with a child about his terminally ill pet and the decision to euthanize him. Just realize that they are an appropriate level of details that should be related to the child depending upon his age. Very young children need to know that this is final and that their pet isn’t going to wake up or come back home with them.

To say that the pet "went away" or is "in heaven" without offering any other details can also confuse children. Older children need to know the reasons why this decision is being made, and why it is humane for the suffering animal.

To be or not to be present at the actual euthanasia is a question many adults wrestle with. This is a personal decision, and one that should be discussed with your veterinarian. When children are involved, some veterinarians do not allow children under the age of 5 to be present for the actual euthanasia. Some feel that very young children have a hard enough time understanding the concept of death and that witnessing the event does not make it easier to understand or cope. Even kids up to the teenager years can have a difficult time understanding the reasons why and the emotions involved with the act of euthanasia.

It is important to realize that when the humans (adults and children) are upset, the pet is, too. While difficult, it is important that the humans try to lend support and comfort to their animal friend in this last time of need. Seeing their humans upset may upset the pet, too.

Children may take a longer time to grieve and get over the loss of a pet than adults do. They may get depressed, act out or be gloomy which is normal and with time should go away. There are warning signs of severe or prolonged grief which need to be addressed depending upon the child’s age, relationship with the pet, emotional maturity, circumstances involved with the death, etc. Some of the signs of grief in children may include: not interested in usual activities, withdrawing from friends and family, eating considerably less than usual, reverting to pre-potty training or bed wetting, afraid of being alone or going to sleep, nightmares, and preoccupied with thoughts of death.

It is important that the child not be belittled for grieving the loss of his pet. It is not the wise parent that makes little of the loss of a pet by saying, “Oh he was old anyway, or we’ll get a new one tomorrow dismissing the child’s relationships with his pet. It does not matter how insignificant the pet was to adult. If the pet was important to the child, then the parent needs to recognize that and accept the child’s feelings and emotions.

To help the child have some kind of closure, a parent may want to have a ceremony for the pet like a burial or memorial service in the backyard. Perhaps the pet can have a gravestone where he is buried. Maybe he can be buried under a special tree. Maybe the child can decorate the urn of the pet’s ashes. Perhaps he would like to draw a special picture of his pet. Buy some balloons and put little notes of love to the animal inside and blow the balloons up and let the child release them in the air as if he were sending a message to his pet in Heaven.

Should you buy a new pet for your child? It’s normally not a wise thing right after the loss of one pet. One pet cannot replace another. The child needs to go through the grieving process, say his goodbyes, let go and then start to heal before he thinks of getting another pet. Normally he’s ready for another one, when he starts talking about having a new pet.

So soon "Baby Doll" will join the other beloved pets in "Dog Heaven" and we here on earth are left to grieve and miss them and wonder why until the good Lord sees fit for us all to be reunited once again!

From the book: "WHEN CHILDREN GRIEVE" - It would be a pity if this interesting, humane, and practical book were read only by parents of recently bereaved children--for two reasons. First, the book is about grief in a broad sense. Its lessons apply not only to the child whose pet, aunt, or parent has died, but also to the child whose parents have divorced, who has suffered a debilitating injury, or who has experienced other forms of traumatic loss. Second, let's face it: every child will suffer a loss at some point, so it behooves parents to be prepared in advance. As the authors say, "our task as parents is to prepare our children to deal with the experiences they will have."

My rating: Acknowledging and accepting the child length of grieving: (4)


  1. Dear Barbara,

    As the co-author of “When Children Grieve,” I thank you for mentioning our book in your blog, and giving it your highest rating.

    I am also a dog person – very much so – I run Agility with my magnificent Hungarian Vizsla, Baxter.

    While we deal with the death of a pet to a limited degree in “When Children Grieve,” our next full-length book will be entirely devoted to pet loss.

    When it’s ready for publication, I’ll send you a copy.

    Again many thanks for the mention, and warm regards,

    Russell Friedman

  2. You're very welcome Russell. I will look forward to receiving your next book. I will do a review on that book after I read it. When will it be published?

  3. We’re in the editing process now and hope to have it finished and ready to go to the publisher next month.

    If you send me an email and a postal address, I’ll see about getting you an advance copy.

    You can email me at

  4. Thank you all that you do.
    Harry Ruffner

  5. Thank you for that nice compliment Harry. It is very much appreciated!