Sept 30, 2005
The spectacular sunrise the morning after Van Gogh was euthanized. Photo by Dr. Teri Ann Oursler
At a slumber party of sorts over New Year’s when I was 12, my parents got together with a bunch of friends for cards and hilarity. The kids hung out in the living room watching TV (long before VCR players), and eventually fell asleep on the floor.
I was lying there, half asleep, as my parents and their friends were visiting and laughing. I am not sure what made me start to listen to the conversation, but I heard my dad telling his friends that many years ago, before moving to our current house, they had put my dog to sleep. A shepherd mix, Jeff was a runner and would bite anyone who got near me, so they believed that moving him to town was a bad idea. As I listened, I was simply stunned. They had told me, when I was five, that they had taken Jeff to a farm to live, that he was going to be happier out in the country at the new place. Some of my trust in my parents died that night. Though I am no longer young (remember, I was around before VCRs), I still remember the rush of emotions that night.
Do I agree that Jeff would have been miserable in town? Absolutely! Do I agree that, due to his aggression, euthanasia was the right answer for everyone involved, including Jeff? Absolutely! Do I agree with their lying to me? No way!
I remember talking about Jeff and wondering how he was doing for years after we moved. I imagine that my incessant talking about Jeff created untold guilt in my parents. I am still deeply sad that they lied to me, and I will always wonder what other lies they told me.
It is hard to see our children in pain, whether from the loss of a pet or a skinned knee. It is harder still to be the one to cause that pain by deciding to euthanize the family pet. It is human nature to avoid pain, both emotional and physical. However, it is important that children learn to deal with pain because no one has a perfect life; there will always be causes of pain, there will always be losses. We all need to learn to handle both, and that is done through practice, not avoidance. Better that children start while they have you there to hug them, cry with them, and show them that they will get through this, that the pain will not last forever. Children learn resilience and how to work through loss when faced with these situations. They are tougher than we know!
In addition to teaching your children to handle loss and difficult decisions, they will also learn how to give and receive comfort. I have found that when I shared my pain, my children would comfort me as much as I was comforting them. There is nothing like a child coming up to give you a hug and tell you they are sorry you are sad.
As parents, we involved our two sons in every euthanasia decision. There were no lies or surprises because we didn’t want them to go through what I had experienced. We have had many pets, so there were a lot of decisions to be made. One of the most difficult ones was for Van Gogh, the cat we found outside during a particularly cold Wyoming winter. The day after we euthanized him, the sunrise was filled with more color than is typical. My youngest son, who was nine at the time, said he could see Van Gogh in the clouds. Knowing the reality of Van Gogh’s death from kidney failure meant my sons could process their grief and deal with it appropriately. We all still miss Van Gogh, but we remember the good things, and 13 years later we are not still distraught with grief about his passing.
I’ve been trying to write about this topic for a long time – I actually started this piece several years ago and didn’t understand why I could never finish it – but I just couldn’t do it while my mom was still alive. I couldn’t see making her feel bad when she was dying. My dad isn’t in a position to be able to read it, but I always read my articles to my mother. I couldn’t write one and not tell her, and I couldn’t tell her that I knew they lied to me. It would have broken her heart to know I learned about their well-intentioned lie and that it had hurt me deeply.
So what is best to tell your child when discussing euthanasia of a family pet?
- First and foremost, tell the truth. It needs to be geared to the child’s age, but it needs to be the truth.
- You do not want to scare children, you don’t want them to think they could be euthanized if they are sick or misbehave, so make sure your children know euthanasia is for pets, not people.
- Do not use the words “put to sleep.” Depending on their age, children can be quite literal and you don’t want to scare a child into thinking that going to sleep is the same as dying.
- Tell your children it is not an easy decision and what your reasoning is. It matters not if you are euthanizing due to illness or behavioral problems, but share your thinking. Sharing the information will bring comfort to all of you.
- Be prepared to have the conversation multiple times. Children may only be able to process in stages and may have more questions later. Be prepared that some kids bring up the subject constantly, out of the blue, in random places.
- Some resources on grieving can be found here, and the children’s books can be especially helpful.
Making the decision to euthanize is hard, hard, hard. Telling your children about it is hard. Sharing it with your children is hard. But as my friend the psychologist says, “Feel the fear, but do it anyway.” You will all sleep better at night and you will have helped your children with several important life lessons.
September 14, 2018
Anne Elizabeth Katherman
September 14, 2018