What to Do When a Pet Dies

Learn how mourning the loss of a pet can teach children valuable life lessons.

“It came completely out of left field,” says Laurie Myers-Ditommaso of Oakville, Ont. “We knew something was wrong, but Gizmo was a puppy. He wasn’t supposed to die.” That was two years ago, and her daughters, Kristin and Danielle, were crushed. Within four days of being diagnosed with a congenital defect, Gizmo passed away.

While heartbreakingly sad, the loss of a pet can be a golden teaching opportunity. “Treat this as a time for your teen to learn about endings and fresh beginnings,” says Shiri Joshua, founder of the Canadian Centre for Pet Loss Bereavement in Toronto and a child and adolescent psychotherapist. “They’re going to have a girlfriend or boyfriend soon. They’re going to face heartbreak. Use this time to help create coping mechanisms that will see them through their adult lives.”

So how can you help your teen deal with losing Gunner or Snowball?

1. Be honest

Whether it’s a sudden accident, chronic illness or the ravages of time, keep your teen informed about what’s happening with her best bud. “Teens are truth seekers,” says Joshua. “Don’t try and spare their feelings.” Yes, it’s going to be harsh, but not knowing, and not having the chance to be involved, is worse. Myers-Ditommaso made sure her daughters knew exactly what was happening with Gizmo. “I didn’t keep anything from the girls. Kristin was with me when the vet told us he was going to die and that it would be best to put him down. It wasn’t easy. Death is something we all want to ignore, but we can’t.”

“Deciding to have a pet put down is a discussion the parent should usually have privately with their vet, first,” says Troye McPherson, a veterinarian in Tantallon, N. S. “Relay what the vet recommends to your child. If he has questions, then have him talk to the vet directly.”

Should your teen attend the euthanasia? It depends. “Some kids do and handle it well,” says McPherson. Parents should inform their kids about what’s going to happen, then let them decide whether or not to attend.

2. Get ready for tears and anger

It’s natural to experience strong emotions when someone you love dies. Respect that and let your kids know it’s OK to feel what they’re feeling. That’s exactly what Helen Keeler did when her daughter’s cat, Willow, was attacked and killed by a neighbour’s dog in their Toronto neighbourhood. “She was very angry,” says Keeler. “I explained that even though this really was a waste and didn’t need to happen, it was not intentional. At the same time, I let her vent. I listened to her and respected her reactions.”

Word to the wise: teens don’t talk much. Sharing what you’re feeling will open the door for them to reveal their feelings. The more they express themselves, the better.

3. Pay tribute to your pet

“Always say goodbye to your pet,” says Joshua. “It doesn’t have to be anything formal. Sit together, share memories, laugh, cry ““ whatever feels right for your family. Never ignore it.” The Ditommasos made a point of bringing Gizmo home before arranging to have him put down, so the girls and all their neighbourhood friends could say goodbye to him. They also put together a memory book with photos, his collar ““ “anything we could find,” says Myers-Ditommaso. “It’s a cherished keepsake and really helped the girls through their grief.” (For more information on pet loss, including ideas for how to memorialize your pet, go to petlosssupport.ca.

4. Don’t replace your pet right away

Everyone grieves differently and for varying amounts of time. “It may take a month or a year, depending on the bond your child had with the pet,” says McPherson. “Be patient, and don’t rush into getting another pet.”

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