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Deciding how and when to say goodbye to your best friend is never going to be an easy thing, and when there are children involved, the decision can become even more confusing.

‘How do we have the conversation?’, ‘Should the children be present at the appointment?’ and ‘What level of understanding is expected at their age?’ are some of the most common questions parents ask.

The fact that there are no set rules around any of these decisions can sometimes make it more difficult to navigate.  Every child is different and every family will have a different way of dealing with their grief.

Some families choose to have everyone present and involved, they have discussed the euthanasia at length and made the decision together, and sometimes even have ceremonies planned for the day of the goodbye.

There are other parents who choose to say goodbye while the children are at school or staying with friends, then explain it to them later.

Either of these options and all variables in between are perfectly okay, and while there are no set guidelines, you may wish to take a few things into consideration, such as the children’s age and ability to comprehend death, their attachment to the pet, and how the passing will affect other family members.

For example, if the pet has been with the you longer than the children, and the children are of pre-school age, it may be more beneficial for you to be able to say goodbye without the children around, allowing you time to express your emotion and grief without having to be in the role of caregiver and ‘staying strong’ for the kids.  If the children are a little older, seeing a parent grieve may give them permission to express their own emotions in a healthy manner, and discussing things openly can reduce the confusion around the feelings that may be coming up and can also give the children the opportunity to comfort you in return.

While the following age guides are quite generalised, they can be helpful to keep in mind when deciding how you will approach the situation with your children:

0-5 years

Children under the age of 6 generally will not have an understanding of death. They may understand that the biological processes have stopped, but they may not understand the permanency and could feel as though the pet might come back one day. It is still okay to include them in the conversation and let them know what is happening.  Allow them to ask questions, even though they may be repetitive.  Try to stay patient and keep your answers truthful, yet short and simple.

Children at this age are more likely to be distressed by seeing their parents upset rather than actually feeling their own sadness over losing the pet.  It’s best to try to keep routines as normal as possible, allow the child to express their feelings and give them plenty of physical comfort.

6-12 years

Older children understand the permanence of death. It can be a good idea to include the child in the conversation, and let them choose their level of involvement in the death and mourning process. Questions at this age may be more specific around the physical aspects of what is happening to the pet. They may hide their feelings, or they may also act out. Try to accept mood-swings, schedule time together and provide outlets for the child to express their emotions in creative ways, such as making memorial collages or drawing pictures.

12 years and older

Teenagers and young adults can often be affected the hardest by losing a pet. In many cases they have grown up with the pet and can see them as their best friend. Its important to allow them to be involved and understand the decision as being what is best for their pet.  It can be helpful to allow them to discuss the reasons for euthanasia with the vet so they feel a sense of control and inclusion. Working through resources such as our Quality of Life Assessment Form as a family can also help them see the need for the decision, and assist them to understand the timing.

Teenagers may try to hide or control their feelings, which is okay, but it is always good to try and keep the conversation open and encourage healthy expression through creative activities and peer support.

No matter what you read, or where you receive your advice, the most important thing to remember is that you know your children best, so whatever decisions you make are going to be right for your family. 

If you need support through this process please contact Sunset Vets on 1800 368 763.

Sunset Veterinary Care

Sunset Vets is a dedicated end-of-life and palliative care service for pets. Our veterinarians are available to support families with in-home care 7 days a week by prior appointment. Get in touch for more information about how we can help.