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When Pets Die

Not once, but twice last week, I took our ailing guinea pig to the vet. She had stopped eating anything but a nibble of lettuce here and there, and now spent her days hiding in her little fleece cozy. Something was up.

I never imagined myself taking a guinea pig to see a veterinarian. After all, what exactly could a vet do to help an old, sick guinea pig? As it turns out, a lot.

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Services that I declined during Fudge’s last week with us: bloodwork, X-rays, exploratory surgery, the possibility of chemotherapy (depending on the results of the exploratory surgery), giving IV fluids at home by myself ... what? No.

Services I accepted, reluctantly: fluids under the skin to rehydrate, a shot of cortisone to stimulate her appetite and special food for hand feeding.

What I really wanted from the veterinarian: euthanasia, a quick and peaceful death for our poor little Fudge. I could see the writing on the wall—why make her suffer for an extra few weeks of life? Fudge died in her cage three days later like I knew she would, and I regretted not advocating for her harder.

Because I am the animal lover in my marriage, I and I alone am usually in charge of deciding when a beloved pet has had enough. I’ve made the decision for two cats and one beloved dog we still cry over a year later, and failed to make it for Fudge. I feel guilty no matter which way things go. But one thing that I think—I think—I’ve done right is use these experiences to help my kids learn about and deal with pet death.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Draw pictures, put up a nice photo, take a paw print in soft clay.

Be honest. This is the hardest part. My kids were 2 and 4 when our first cat was put down, but we still explained what was happening in the simplest terms possible. Our sweet kitty died. Here she is in this box. We will bury her in the backyard. No, she will not come back to life, she is dead. But we have so many wonderful memories of her. Wasn’t she a great cat? We painted a rock together to mark the spot, and they were OK.

They were 4 and 6 when our second cat died, and there were a lot more questions that time around. We don’t talk about pets in Heaven, but my kids came up with that conclusion on their own, and I don’t take it away from them. Explaining cremation (our dog was too big to bury) was a challenge. By the time our dog died last year when they were 8 and 10, they understood. She is very old and she is in a lot of pain, we can help her.

Don’t bring the kids. While I believe it’s important for kids to know what’s happening and to be given a chance to say goodbye, they shouldn’t be present for the act of euthanasia itself. While euthanasia is a gift for a suffering pet, each one is different, and how your pet will react is unpredictable.

Allow yourself to grieve. Kids look to their parents to make sure everything is OK, so it’s important that you are “OK” (as opposed to hysterical) to reassure them and to put things in perspective. But it’s also important for kids to learn how to express their emotions, and seeing you grieve is part of that lesson. I shed more tears than anyone for all of our pets (even that damn guinea pig). For one of my kids, who is a little more buttoned up, it gave her “permission” to do her own grieving in front of us rather than feeling ashamed of her feelings.

Visit the library. We read a lot of books together when our first pets died. My favorites include Saying Goodbye to LuLu, I’ll Always Love You, and The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, but there are so many more.

Make a memorial. We have a big backyard, so we were able to bury our pets and mark the spot with a painted stone. But there are other nice ways to remember your pet: Draw pictures, put up a nice photo, take a paw print in soft clay. Our youngest bought a little frame with her own money shortly after our dog died that says, “A house is not a home without a dog.” It still hangs in her room with a picture of her buddy.

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Move on when the time comes. Your kids are likely to be ready to move on before you are, and it’s OK to let them. Every now and then we all want to sit and snuggle and remember our old friends, but in my experience—with good support and lots of reassurance—kids bounce back from losing a pet pretty quickly.

Have you lost a pet or had to resort to euthanasia? How did you handle it with your kids?

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