Friday, March 23, 2012

Explaining The Loss of a Pet through Euthanasia to a child

Sorry it has been a while since I posted, I really have been busy with drawing printables.

Two days ago our cat was euthanized.  She was 15 years old and had been chronically ill for about two years, then 3 days ago she suffered a stroke, went blind and was unable to walk.  It had to be done.  It was a heart wrenching decision to make in the first place and I was so scared to tell my 7 year old.  A natural death might have made more sense to him, but why were we ending it for her?

He was very close to her.  He has 2 dogs as well, but Saki (the cat) was his favorite.  He carried her around the house- everywhere he went.  We have had brief discussions before about pets not living forever and that someday we must let them go.  I wish we could have done it when he wasn't home and just told him "she died" but unfortunately the way it worked out that was not possible.

We told him that Saki loves him very much and knows that he loves her too. She has had a long and very happy life and has had more love than most cats get- so her life was well spent.  We pointed out that she had been very sick for a long time and that she was hurting so much that the medicine does dot help.  Now as well as pain, she must also be scared because she can no longer see.

I told him that the vet can give her a shot to make her happy and not feel any hurting or fear, but that after that shot, she would die so we would not see her anymore.

He cried for a while and cuddled me.  I offered him the chance to spend some more cuddle time with her which he gladly accepted and he really made the most of that time.  He took her to the grass so that she could spend time outdoors (she had  always tried to sneak out there) and spoke to her the whole time while petting her.  They kissed, he gave her tons of treats and people food and she gave him lots of kisses and cheek rubs and purred really loudly.

He asked to come with us to the appointment.  We allowed him to spend time with her until right before the process started- then he waited outside with my husband.  He cried, but he really was coping well.  He asked to see her body but we thought right there at the office may be too much- since we brought her home to be buried, we thought he should think about whether he really wanted to see her and we would discuss it at home.

When we got home, he was quite adamant that he see her, so we did eventually let him see her.  He was curious about what death looked like and actually found it comforting to see that she really did just look like she was sleeping and very relaxed.  In this situation I think that seeing her body actually helped him because the lack of pain was so obvious compared to how she had looked just before she died- she was at peace, and that helped him be at peace.

We buried her and he gave a lovely speech and planted a beautiful pink flower bush with her so that when we want to see her we can just look at the bush.  I asked him if he had any questions about death.  He said "not right now".  He has spoken openly since then about her death but MORE about her life and the fun times we had together.  He has placed a new flower on her grave in the mornings and at bedtime (stolen from my flowerbed- but that's ok this time).  He misses her, but is not angry about losing her or the fact that she was euthanized.

I think that some kids can handle parts of the process that others might not need to know about, what we did that helped him the most in this situation was follow his lead to see what he could and could not handle.   We offered very basic information about the situation, read his face and asked him questions before elaborating. This was he only had to process as much as he was ready for at the time.  I was shocked that he wanted to see her body and really did not want him to, but at the same time, I knew she did not look scary or hurt... so eventually I caved and now I'm glad I did (she was nicely swaddled in a blankie and positioned as if it were a nap) but seeing the body is not appropriate in all situations, try to gauge what your child is ready for.

If you have to explain a similar situation to your child, try using basic terminology, see if they understand, and try not to pile on too much info at once.  Death is the natural result of every life, they will be exposed to it at some point.

With the loss of the pet it is natural for them to want to "fix" the pet.  Those types of questions may lead into "if she dies from that, will I?".  An example of a simple explanation (involving a writing utensil and paper) is to draw two parallel lines about the width of your finger and make a teeny tiny dot.  Point to the parallel lines and say something like "In people, the small pieces like blood vessels are about this size.  Doctors can fix that because they can see it"  then point to the small dot and say something like "in a cat, that same piece is about that big, the doctor can't fix something so small".

A basic picture with a basic explanation usually helps to calm the fear that they will die from whatever the pet had wrong with them- I chose blood vessels because they came to mind after she had numerous blood clots and a stroke. He did eventually ask this question but was satisfied with this answer.  Some kids will perseverate and the questions won't stop coming.  If your child is the type to ask a lot of questions, try to have a few basic and "absolute" answers in your head before you talk to them.

Your vet may also have some helpful information, if you can, try to call them when your kid is not within earshot.  Our vet had tons of helpful sites (I lost the pamphlet, will post it if I find it)  some of which had free printable illustrated books to help explain it to younger kids.

I guess I babbled a lot here, remember to be honest with your child, but only volunteer what they are mature enough to handle and give them an open invitation to ask questions about it whenever they are ready.