Dear Loving Our Dog,
Preparing for a pet's death is never easy, no matter how young or old the humans are, or whether the pet is a gerbil or a Golden. OK, OK. Do I really believe that? No; there's probably more attachment to a pet with whom you can cuddle. But it's important not to dismiss the potential depth of feelings a child has for a pet. Any pet.
The process of preparing for and grieving the death needs to be taken seriously, no matter what. Never assume your child won't notice there's one less fish swimming around, and don't just flush it away or put it in the trash. To not offer some kind of goodbye ritual is to run the risk of appearing to be unfeeling (or worse). It tends to be one of those events children never forget. "My mom flushed my fish down the toilet! I still can't believe she did that!" -- a comment I've that from a grown adult.
Don't let a pet's deterioration just happen. Point it out now and then. It's ok to attach emotion to it, as long as you don't over-do it: "Spot can't jump on the couch anymore; even though I never wanted him there, it makes me really sad to see he's not as frisky as he used to be."
Brainstorm ways that each of you can help ease the pet's situation, whether it's helping her with the stairs, or petting her more often. One way young children develop empathy (which is a learned behavior, after all, not something that comes naturally for most of us) is caring for a beloved pet. A favorite activity of mine is to encourage a young child to read to an ailing pet; the dog's just gonna sleep, anyway, but who's to say she doesn't love the story? It's a great way for a child to feel he is offering comfort.
In the lead-up to the end, young children need you to be concrete: Not, "I can see he's getting sicker," but, "I heard him crying all night, I sat with him, so I know he's in a lot of pain. He's really getting sicker."
Easing young children into the idea that the pet will die is a good idea but that doesn't mean it will actually compute. Under the age of 6, kids may think death is reversible. Be patient. This is a developmental cognitive issue, not something your child is saying to be difficult.
If you're going to put a pet down, this is not something young children need to know. It's enough to say you took him to the vet and he was so sick, he died.
A few thoughts for after the death:
You don't have to hide your sadness. It's ok to cry and be sad and, absolutely, to talk about missing him. The key is to express your feelings and pull yourself together and move on. It's one of the ways we have to model for children how to cope with sadness and grief.
About the ritual: Our gerbil was buried under a tree in our yard, amid a somber mood and a few brief words. I never really thought our son was all that connected to her, but there were a few times when I would see Eli quietly standing in the spot. Clearly, the pet had mattered and so had the ceremony. Years later, when our dog died, Eli insisted on cremation. Abbey's ashes rest in a box on our book shelf.
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Recommended reading about an aging, dying pet: "Jasper's Day," by Majorie Blain Parker, illustrated by Janet Wilson.