Helping Kids Cope With Pet Loss

Shani Thornton is a parent of two boys and works as a Certified Child Life Specialist in her community. She launched a child life and parenting website called ChildLifeMommy to provide resources to parents, child life specialists and medical providers. She enjoys spending time with her family, working out and filling gaps in service.

He was 13 years old, or at least, that was our guess. We rescued our feisty French bulldog, Bugz, 11 years ago, and he instantly became a family member. He was there for the milestones of marriage, career change, new home and children. He had some challenging quirks to him, caused by an abusive past, but that made us just love him even more. We accepted him for who he was and gave him the best home possible.

As time went on, and his hair turned gray, his back legs became weak, and there were fewer tug-a-war games, I knew we would have to face the inevitable. I tried to prepare the family, but knew that when the actual day came, the pain was going to be awful to work through and witness. My kids had already experienced a tremendous number of deaths in a short period of time, so I knew that this loss would rip open those old wounds and possibly instill fear and uncertainty about their own lives.

One week before school was to begin, Bugz’s health rapidly declined. I brought him to the vet that morning to see if there was any hope, but the doctor validated what I already knew in my heart.

It was time.

Through a flood of tears, I made arrangements to come back that afternoon with my husband to put Bugz to sleep. I knew we only had a few hours at home with him, and my mind went into overdrive on how to make this time memorable and how I was going to tell my kids.

So this is what I did …

Honesty: It’s easy to sugar coat difficult conversations or avoid them all together. but I know kids need to hear the truth from the people they trust the most, their parents. My husband and I sat the kids down and told them that the vet confirmed that Bugz’s health wasn’t going to get any better. He was suffering and crippled by the pain. I explained our plan to bring them to their grandparents’ house while we took Bugz back to the vet. I wanted to be clear about what the vet would do to avoid the boy’s imagining more frightening scenarios or thinking that the vet was a bad person. I explained that the doctor would give Bugz medicine that would make him go to sleep, very similar to medicine before surgery. Once he was asleep, the doctor would give him an additional dose that would stop his heart from beating, and he would die.

Yes, I used that word.

My husband and I were right there to hold them as they processed what I said. My seven-year-old screamed and cried, while my four-year-old calmly asked, “Will he go to heaven with Grandma and Grandpa?”

We knew they would each react differently, and that their grief would continue to come out over the next several months. The most important things we did were validate their emotions, tell the truth, answer questions and explain that they did nothing to cause it. We then gave them the choice to participate in memory making activities.

Legacy building: I wanted the boys to always have something tangible of Bugz, so we took lots of candid photos, and we did some paw prints on a canvas. They chose the paint colors and how many paw prints they wanted on their canvas. My four-year-old even painted his own hand next to Bugz’s paw print. The boys also chose Bugz’s favorite tug-a-war rope to be cremated with. During all of this, there were some tears shed and stories told about our amazing furry family member who would be missed deeply.

Four quadrant photo -- the top left photo has red and blue paw prints. The lower left has blue pawprints. Bugz is in the top right photo with his head just above a hose bib. Shani and her boys are sitting on a wood bench. Shani is in the middle wearing a blue top. One son is standing in front of her between her knees wearing a blue top and blue shorts. The other son is wearing a light gray t-shirt, and he is resting his head on Bugz.

Dog palliative care: I grilled Bugz a big, juicy cheeseburger and gave him enough pain medication and sedatives to calm his nerves before I brought him back to the vet. I let him spend time in his favorite outdoor spot as he soaked up the sun rays and was gently stroked by our hands.

Never left his side: I carried Bugz into the exam room, and my husband and I sat on the floor with him. We reassured him that he was safe, and then sobbed into his fur coat and said our final goodbyes. My heart was broken as we drove away, and I rubbed his empty leash with my hands, but I knew he was no longer suffering.

That first night without Bugz was awful. My seven-year-old laid awake until midnight as he mourned his dog’s loss, and my four-year-old had a challenging time controlling his temper. We knew that out of all of the recent deaths we had experienced, Bugz’s would cut a bit deeper, and it did.

Over the next month, the kids continued to express their emotions verbally and through creative arts and play. We had to adjust to a home without a dog and face painful triggers of his loss, but we also grew closer as we went through this journey of grief together.

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