Death is never an easy conversation topic to discuss with children. When a child has helped raise a pet, and is deeply attached to them, it can be devastating to find that the end is near. How you communicate that your dog or cat may be dying will vary greatly based on the child’s age and understanding. Below are some tips on what to do and what not to do when breaking the difficult news to a child.
Approach the subject gently: Since death is a weighty subject, it merits a focused discussion time. Set aside several minutes to sit your child down sometime in the middle of the day (aka, not too close to when they need to go to sleep). Let them know you want to talk to them about your dog or cat and how they have been feeling lately.
Give context: Ask if they child has noticed anything different about the pet recently. For example: Has the dog seemed more tired than usual, or does the kitty not like to play as much anymore? Once the child is recalling some of his own experiences with the animal, you will be able to explain why the pet might be acting this way. If he is merely getting old, explain that animals sadly don’t live as long as people do, and that their bodies start to not work as well as they used to. If the pet is struggling with a disease, describe what is going on in the cat or dog’s body. (For example: if your cat is dying from kidney disease or failure, explain they he isn’t able to rid his body of toxins, and the longer he keeps living the harder it is to function.) When a child understands what is going on physically and the pain the pet might be suffering, it is a lot easier for them to accept the outcome.
Put it simply: Tell your child that the vet has done everything he could to save and help the animal, but that he sadly will not be able to get better. Next, explain what the options are. Communicate that the dog or cat could grow weaker and weaker every day, living in pain and feeling sad, or he could be put to rest in a peaceful way. Let the child know that the vet can put some medicine in the pet’s body that will help him go to sleep, and then once he is asleep, will stop his heart. The animal will not feel any pain, and will not be sad anymore. The pet will be surrounded by his family, and will just feel like he is taking a nap, so that he won’t have to suffer every day in pain.
Consolation and comfort: Once your child understands what is happening, reassurance is key. Help the child understand that the dog or cat knows he is loved, and that all the hurting and sadness will stop once he is asleep. Maybe the child can take a special picture with the pet, or make a drawing of them (depending on how old the child is), or let the animal sleep by the foot of his bed a few last times. Allowing a child to process the loss is an important part of dealing with grief. Then, as necessary you can assure your child that when the time is right, you will be able to give another sweet puppy or kitty a new home.