Everything You Need To Know About Saying Goodbye to a Family Pet
“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
- Winnie the Pooh
Toby’s paw prints hang in a wooden frame, placed lovingly on our dining room wall. Each time we cast our gaze at his tiny paws, we feel both happy and sad. Often, those small black prints bring us to tears. We knew the day would come, but saying goodbye to our family pet of 18 years was a remarkably painful family experience. As all pet owners know, animals become an integral part of our daily lives. They see the best and the worst of us, but regardless of how our days unfold, they remain steadfast in their devoted love for us. In their absence, we often feel a deep sense of loss.
As all pet owners know, animals become an integral part of our daily lives. They see the best and the worst of us, but regardless of how our days unfold, they remain steadfast in their devoted love for us.
Toby was fading. We noticed his digression in the way he walked, the way he ate and where he elected to sleep. Over time, he became a shadow of himself. With the visual reminders weighing on us each day, we did what we could to prepare our children. We would subtly make reference to those issues Toby was struggling with as a way to try to mentally prepare them for what was to come.
On a cold, still Friday, as Toby struggled to walk to his food bowl, we knew it was time. We encouraged the children to say goodbye before they left for school. They recognized what this goodbye symbolized and lingered longer than normal that morning.
As parents, we had made the collective decision not to have our children present when we took Toby to the vet.
While we know families that have included their children in the process, we personally felt that would be too traumatic. This is a decision that should be reached, in my humble opinion, as parents who know their children best. Some children may be mature and emotionally stable enough to handle this aspect of life, but we felt strongly that our children were not. We also elected to keep the details of his passing simple and straightforward.
As we have now said final goodbyes to two of our family pets, we have learned a great deal. Below I share some information with you in the hopes that our experiences will lessen some of your pain if you are enduring something similar.
Though you feel the urge to be strong for your children, allow your children to see you cry and do not neglect your own feelings during this difficult time.
Grief runs deep and can last a long time. By allowing our children the opportunity to witness our sadness, this gives them permission to process their own emotions freely. Those emotions are essential for their development and healing, so embrace all that is to come.
Keep in mind that our animals are time capsules which house our movement through time. Often present before our own families grow, they have traveled with us through space and time, sorrow and joy. When I found myself unable to stop crying a week after we lost our first family pet, I took a step back to reflect on why that loss hit me so hard. I realized that our cat was a symbol of time and the realization that time is ephemeral hit me very hard.
Recognize that the loss of a pet may also bring up previous loss in your life. Sometimes, our grief surfaces long after the physical departure of those we have lost.
Finally, some of your feelings may be attributed to the sorrow you know your children will feel during this emotional time. When I asked my husband why he believed he took Toby’s death so hard, he responded with, “It just broke my heart to have to tell the children.” As parents, the thought of our children hurting in anyway can compound an already tragic event.
Consult Your Vet
It is always an agonizing decision to put an animal to sleep. Is it the right time? Is he or she suffering? What if it’s just a bad day? How will my children handle the absence of their pet? From previous experience, euthanizing an animal is a tremendous responsibility and one that may cause you to second guess yourself. For your own sake, seek confirmation from a professional. Confirm with your vet that he or she believes it is the right time to say goodbye. Once you have the confirmation, hopefully you will feel more at peace with your decision.
If your vet doesn’t explain the step - by - step process of euthanizing your pet, ask them to do so, so you know exactly what to expect.
If you can stay in the room with your pet, despite how heart wrenching the moment may be, we recommend you do. Your pet will exit his or her life with you near, which is not only comforting, but is a gift we all hope for in the end. Do not be surprised if you find yourself grieving in a deep, profound way.
As a society, we often do not recognize the grief associated with losing a pet the same as we grieve for a person. Some are even offended by the comparison, however, human grief over an animal is intense and some professionals even say, that loss can be felt more deeply than the loss of a person.
The bonds we share with our pets are significant. Our pets are consistently there for us. They do not judge, or talk back and their love is unconditional.
Our pets are with us 24 hours a day and available when our friends and family may not be. Their constant presence becomes a routine part of our daily lives, so much in fact, that it is only natural that their departure will signify a deep absence in our lives.
We All Grieve Differently
My children both processed Toby’s loss differently and that is perfectly normal. We have personally discovered throughout our lives that there is no one right way to grieve. Weeks after the loss of our pet, our children still cry, as do we. A thought might surface, a picture may appear, all bringing with them a wave of raw emotions. When sadness arises, we openly discuss our feelings and try to remember Toby’s best days. Grief is like riding a wave with some days being smoother than others. We remind ourselves that his absence is like a wound that requires ongoing attention and time in order to heal.
Be aware that children may be extra clingy during the grieving process. They may reach for your hand more often, move in close for an embrace and even wish to sleep with you at night. As death is mysterious and often frightening for a child, extra human contact is essential during this time.
It may also be advantageous to inform your children’s teachers or caretakers about their recent loss in the event your child displays erratic, emotional or distant behavior in the classroom.
Seek the Natural World
We have found that throughout life’s most difficult moments, getting into nature is extremely therapeutic.
While we continue to mourn the loss of our family pet, hikes, snow walks and simply being outside has proven to be a helpful distra ction. There is something about the fresh air, and the new scenery that encourages our children to open up. The conversations we have on the trail are not only healing, but provide the opportunity to bond in a meaningful way.
While in nature, consider creating a farewell ceremony for your pet. Some families elect to cremate their pet and spread their ashes in a memorable location, or in a backyard. Again, there is no right way for this either, but gathering together to share memories and honor the life of your pet is part of the healing process.
A New Pet
As a family, talk openly about your intent to welcome a new pet into your family. While some family members may be eager to start that search immediately, others may need more time. Decide as a group when and if you are all ready to open your hearts again by welcoming a new animal into your home.
If you are uncertain about a new pet, consider cat sitting or dog walking as an alternative. We are in the midst of starting this endeavor in the hopes of seeing how we feel about a new pet before making the commitment.
Remember your pet by printing photos and talking about him or her often. Most pet owners have a collection of funny stories and loving memories to share. Whenever your pet comes up in conversation, dive in and do not shy away from the emotions those discussions may ignite.
By remembering our pets, we are honoring the lives they lived with us.
In closing, navigating death as a family with children is a difficult and tumultuous journey. When we love with great abandon, it is inevitable that our hearts will be broken. As I age, and a lesson I hope to teach my children is to love despite the pain. This life is all the sweeter because we have the opportunity to swing our hearts wide open. I’ll take 18 years of smiles, purring, cuddles and memories regardless of how many tears we shed over Toby. In the end, we have all learned that to love makes us human and it was worth it, all of it!
“If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart, I’ll stay there forever.”
- Winnie the Pooh
Below I provide one very helpful article and a couple of children’s books I can highly recommend those dealing with loss.
Annette McGivney “How to Grieve for a Very Good Dog”
Outside Online, September 2, 2021
This article explains the grief and trauma of losing a pet. The emotions one endures and long-lasting sadness that seems to linger.
Invisible Strings by Patrice Karst and the Workbook
I gifted this book to a dear friend when her family was deep in the grieving process. She said this one book helped her children process their loss and was by far one of the best books on loss she had ever read.
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie
This book is fantastic. I read this book to my children years ago when they were smaller and it helped them understand that we, as well as animals and insects all have a life cycle. This book provided a different approach to death that helps children understand this transition in life in a very unique, straightforward way.
About the Author:
Melinda Taylor Schoutens is a mother, wife, educator and author. Born and raised in the United States, she moved with her husband to Switzerland in 2007. Their initial contract of two - years quickly morphed into 14. Learning to be flexible and open to new possibilities has taught her a great deal. Now, as the mother of two children, Basel feels very much like home.
Melinda is a certified Holistic Health Coach that studied at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City. Melinda holds a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction and has taught adults and children on an array of topics. She has designed educational curriculum for years and has curated and delivered a lecture entitled, “The Education of Nature.” She is the author of the Fresh Air Kids Switzerland book series, which you can oder here.
Sign up here to hear more from us!