by Marianne Schultz

I have a friend who recently had to euthanize his 14 year old dog Lili. Lili had been his companion prior to marriage and children. He and his wife had come to the decision to let Lili leave this world to be free from her pain and suffering and wondered how to explain this to their kids, aged 4 and 6. “Lili is going to doggie heaven” seemed to work as the way to convey the message (although this may not work for every family).

They had witnessed her decline from the happy-go-lucky loyal companion to a struggling dog not familiar to them during her illness. Their four year old wanted to sing a song to Lili the morning before she left the family. He chose “I Want To Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles. My friend took a video of this heartbreaking and poignant way to mark this impactful life event.

Their six year old had a better concept of what “doggie heaven” meant and that their beloved family member would not be coming back home from the vet’s office. Still, he had never experienced death of any kind by a family member.

My friend said that his family is struggling and it is hard for the children to see him and his wife cry about the loss of Lili. We talked about the impact of loss on children and discussed activities to honor and memorialize a pet specifically for children.

How to help kids

Here are some books which assist in understanding the loss by age group:

  • Goodbye Bracken by David Lupton, ages 4-8
  • Kate The Ghost Dog: Coping With The Death Of a Pet by Wayne L. Wilson, ages 8-13
  • Memories Of You by Erainna Winnert, ages 7-12

Also for younger children, Sesame Street produced a wonderful segment on grief and loss, which you can hear about in this NPR story.

Another activity that can be helpful is holding a small family memorial service. Older children can write a letter to their pet and read it at the service. Younger children, or those who like to express themselves visually, may choose to draw a picture. These notes and works of art can either be kept by the family as a memento or buried or cremated along with their remains.

Children may take comfort in assisting with scattering of the ashes, if the family is planning on doing that. My friend will eventually by flying back to the state where he first adopted Lili. There are some hiking trails and coastline areas that were special in her life with them, and each child plans to participate in the scattering along with their parents.

Creating photo albums or books of the family member is a wonderful way to honor and remember them. Let the children select favorite photos, and as they do you can encourage them to share the memories and emotions associated with the loss.

Some people like to plant a memorial garden with a sign that says “Lili’s Garden,” or they can plant a tree in the pet’s honor. Even a small potted plant sitting on a window sill can be their “garden,” and the kids can participate in choosing and/or decorating the pot. If you don’t have a place to plant a garden, the Arbor Day Foundation will plant trees in national forests in your pet’s honor.

Children often, but not always, will grieve openly at the loss of a pet, which can be difficult for parents to watch. But tears are healthy and honor our beloved pet and should not result in fear or shame – let children know they are a natural result of sadness and grief and encourage them, without judgement, to express whatever feelings they are having at the time. Here is more advice for communicating with kids who are grieving.

Your pet will forever and always be in your family’s hearts. Honoring that relationship, and yes, the sadness and grief that come along with it, will teach your children about compassion and empathy, lessons that they will carry with them as the grief becomes less raw with time and the good memories become a reserve of love and comfort that they can draw from in difficult times.

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