Veterinary medicine these days helps us keep our dogs alive and fit for many long happy years. But the dark lining of this silver cloud is the early diagnosis of terminal illness - leaving us weeks, even months, with the distressing knowledge that our little friend will be leaving us.
The approach of a pet's death is painful for the hardiest adult. When you have children, your pain extends to telling your youngsters, and holding their hands through this distressing time.
Tell them the truth early and often.
Tell them: You can't keep the bad news a secret. They'll notice you're sad or distracted or on edge, they'll notice the increased attention to Rover. They'll find out eventually (and better before than after seeing Rover have a seizure). They can help you keep Rover as fit as possible as long as possible. Older kids can help monitor medicine or exercise; even younger kids can be alert for symptoms.
Tell them the truth. Explain the responsibility we have to our pets, who depend on us for their health and well being. Euthanasia - gently easing an animal from life to inevitable death - is a difficult kindness. The veterinarian knows precisely how much anesthetic to give your pet so that he will die quickly and painlessly. Explain the concept of quality of life and how you will gauge when it's time for Rover to be euthenized.
Tell them often. After you add euthanasia to their vocabulary, add euphemism. Euthanasia is not being "put to sleep;" that's a euphemism. But don't explain euthanasia once and from then on talk about "putting the dog to sleep." Younger children especially will forget the first lesson and convince themselves that in Rover's case, he just has to go to sleep - not to euthanasia. It makes some sense to use benign phrases in ordinary conversation. But for every few times you say, "When Rover is gone " summon up the courage to say, "When Rover dies".
Tell them early. The Rainbow Bridge poem is a sweet and satisfying bedtime story. Share it with your kids before they "need" it. For one thing, your dog is not going to outlive your kids. In that sense, he is terminally ill already. For another, whether you currently have a pet or not, if your children watch Animal Planet or Disney movies, they already enjoy warm relationship with animals. Start early to ease them into truths about life and life-spans.
Early is also when to share your spiritual beliefs. Then, when the need arises, your child will have a grounding to help her find ways to pray not just for her pet, but relief from her own grief and anxiety. However, if you have never discussed religion with your kids, now is a very bad time to start. You might think you're introducing a merciful God, but your child is likely to see Him as the invisible Meany Who Killed My Dog.
Anticipate Feelings and Reactions
The unknown is fearsome, and when you're a kid, so much is unknown - including your own feelings and reactions. Tell your kids what they might expect within themselves during their dog's final illness:
Tears. Regardless of our age or gender, we cry. Some people cry at hearing the prognosis, others at the time of the death, others when their pet is finally gone. Plenty of us cry at all those times! We don't often see others cry; your kids might not see you cry or want to be seen crying. But they do need to know it's a common, normal reaction.
Emotions such as anger, fear, guilt, and relief - any of us might feel all of these. Some of these emotions might increase or decrease over time. Some, even feelings that conflict such as anger and relief, might be felt simultaneously.
Physical reactions include loss of appetite, insomnia, exhaustion, and headaches and tummy aches. Nausea and diarrhea being such common symptoms of stress, you should prepare your medicine cupboard while you prepare your kids.
Plan life, plan death, plan good-bye
Her whole life, you've made plans for the dog: when to walk her, which training class to attend, when to take her for her check-ups.
Plan picture taking! Take lots of photos every year. Family photos are must-haves, but make sure some are of each individual child alone with the dog. These snapshots will become treasured mementos.
Now that Lady is ill, plan a "thank you" celebration-some specific way you can celebrate her life while she is with you. If she is still well enough, take her on a family outing to one of her favorite spots. If she's no longer energetic, gather around and tell her stories about your life together and how much you love her. Do something imaginative and in keeping with your pet's personality.
Plan for "Afterwards": Discuss how and where you want to bury or cremate her. (Your vet can recommend burial sites and services.) Let everyone have say. Simple things- such as keeping and treasuring her collar or letting her wear it forever-can matter deeply. Decide how to say the final Good-bye. Some children need to say "Good-bye" in the security of home. Other children will want to accompany Lady to the vet's and stay with her for all, or a portion of, her last few minutes. Children who can't bear to watch the procedure might want to come in and pet their dog one last time after she's died. Help your children make choices based on their individual strengths and needs.
Maybe your kids are adults now, and you've long since taught them about euthanasia, about quality of life, about responsible care of all animals. But even if they're on their own, tell them the truth if you are facing the terminal illness of your dog. They'll be well equipped to help you through it, to be there to hold your hand.
Bleak as it is anticipating a pet's death, the days after can be dreadful. Resources to help you and your children through include: