When we brought our sweet rescue dog, Canyon, home from the Tarrant County Humane Society nearly 12 years ago, we knew that one day, we would have to have one of the hardest conversations ever with the children we had hoped to one day have.
That day happened a little over a month ago. It sucked. There really are no words to describe what it was like to process this news as adults, but then to share with our three children (ages 9, 5 and 2).
Canyon’s health was rapidly declining due to a fast growing cancerous tumor in her mouth (and probably elsewhere in her body). She couldn’t eat, and life was just very painful for her.
There were tears.
Lots of them.
Our oldest two children slept on the floor of the living room for our last night with Canyon. It was a moment I hope I will never forget. Canyon didn’t move all night, but stayed by their sides.
BEING INTENTIONAL WITH CHILDREN
As a pastor, families sometimes ask me to guide them through various parts of life’s journey. Coping with the loss of a pet is a very real, very difficult part of life and I hope some of these ideas will help you, should you and your family face this someday.
- Be honest, but appropriate with your children. Try not to say things like “Canyon is going to the farm” or “Canyon is going to sleep.” These kinds of things might confuse a child or even scare them (“Mommy, I don’t want to sleep, because I might not wake up.”) Instead, explain that your pet is very sick and that the doctors are going to do what they can to help your pet not feel pain and not feel sick anymore. If you are a family of faith, including part of your faith practice with your conversation can be helpful.
- Allow the children to take a photo, if possible, with the pet. My children loved sitting with Canyon to take a photo with her one last time. They wanted to print them immediately and put them in frames in their rooms. If you don’t have the opportunity to take a last photo, find a photo of your pet from a previous time and put it in a frame for your child.
- Allow for questions (and accept it if your children don’t have any). Some children will want to know more details about their pet’s end of life. Others may not “need” to know every last detail. Follow your child’s lead on this and don’t push.
- Draw pictures or read books together. Two books that I recommend (that were recommended to me) are Dog Heaven (there is also a version for Cat lovers: Cat Heaven). We were also given a beautiful book from a friend titled, The Heaven of Animals Again, don’t push or rush to read something like this…it took us a few days to weeks before we could read these books together as a family.
- Plan a very intentional family day…call it “distraction,” but that Friday morning, we woke the children up early, they got ready for school and said their final goodbyes to sweet Canyon, I took them to Panera for a bagel and muffies for breakfast, brought them lunch to their school, and after school took them to a super cool place in Waco to get the world’s best hot cocoa (this was while my dear husband was taking Canyon to the vet). We met up with Justin for dinner and then a family date night to see Big Hero 6 (by the way, that’s AMAZING!) We came home from a full, intentional, be-present-in-every-moment-kind-of day and had a good family cry at home that night.
We still have moments where we miss her. We probably will for a while. Our other dog, Dexter seems a little lost. I’m sure another pet is in our future, although we are definitely not rushing into anything like that right now!
These are just a few ideas to help your family through a difficult time. We were so very grateful to be surrounded by friends and family who prayed for us through this transition. These ideas are not original, but were things passed to me, so I wanted to pay it forward and share it with you.
What ideas do you have to help families and children cope with the loss of a pet? I’d love to hear them!