Last week I received a telephone call from one of my clients. She realized the time had come for her 17-year-old dog to be euthanized. She had not previously euthanized a pet and we had a long discussion about the logistics related to timing, the procedure itself, and the options of cremation and burial. All veterinarians are experienced in addressing these specific issues and I gave concise and informative answers. But then she asked me a hard question, “Should I bring my daughter, and how should I prepare her for this?”
This question gave me a parenting flashback. When he was about 4 years old, my son saw a butterfly displayed in a shadow box on the wall of a quaint restaurant. The entire lunch conversation alternated between his two questions and my two honest, but inadequate answers.
“Why is the butterfly not moving?”
“Because it is dead”
“How do you know it is dead?”
“Because it is not moving.”
Shortly after this circular conversation, I learned a better way to answer children’s questions about death from Dr. David Schonfeld, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and the Thelma and Jack Rubinstein Professor of Pediatrics and director of the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics and the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Several years ago, Dr. Schonfeld gave a presentation at The Animal Medical Center. When talking about death with children, Dr. Schonfeld says you must keep in mind they may not understand death and you must give complete answers to their questions. My answer was not detailed enough. I should have gone on to say a dead butterfly or (anyone else that is dead) does nothing a live butterfly does. They do not eat, fly, sleep, or breathe and these changes are permanent. If your child asks about their own death or that of a beloved family member, gently tell them we all die, but hopefully it won’t be for a long time. Explaining the lifespan of people is much longer than that of most pets may help your child to understand why you think human family members will be around for many more years.
I agree with Dr. Schonfeld when he said honesty is important when discussing death with children. Sometimes the death of a pet may be a child’s first experience with the permanence of death. If parents hide the death of a pet, act like nothing has happened, or ignore their child’s questions about death, the child may incorrectly deduce there is something shameful about death, putting them at risk of complicated grieving when a human family member, such as an elderly grandparent, dies.
When the time comes to euthanize the family pet, veterinarians want it to be as positive an experience as something not very happy can be. I always offer for family members to come with their dog and say goodbye or be with their dog during the procedure, or to say goodbye after the euthanasia. I allow the family to choose some, all, or none of these options. For children and also for some adults, being present for the death may be too much. I also have found children find the book Dog Heaven, by Cynthia Rylant, a comfort after the loss of a beloved dog.
Because I have found Dr. Schonfeld’s presentation so helpful both in my job and at home, I asked Dr. Schonfeld to reprise some of the information he presented at The AMC and his answers will be the subject of my next blog.