A child's first exposure to death often comes from the loss of a beloved pet. Kids get very attached to animals as sources of comfort and unconditional love, as a means of learning responsibility and as members of the family. That loss can shape their view of dying, their view of their parents, their sense of safety in the world, and so much more.
So I was quite disturbed to read this article last week by a mom who had let her children be present as they put their loving Snuggles (above), a cat with Feline Leukemia, to sleep at the vet's office. Please take care reading this article, it might be disturbing to some.....
To summarize, Snuggles had been ill for weeks and they knew he wasn't going to make it. They spent lots of time with him and gave him as much love and comfort as they could. But organ failure is common with FeLV and the poor creature became ill and suffering, finally refusing his food, which is usually the sign they are done with this life.
When the time finally came, the mother argued for allowing her two boys, ages 8 and 10, to be present, so they could say good-bye and "have closure" about their kitty's death. And they did say their farewells and thanked him as the injections were given. But as he passed, her oldest son was immediately traumatized and began screaming. He was inconsolable for a very long time that day, and it took weeks for him to stop needing to sleep in his parents' bed. Both boys talked about death and became obsessed with their own demise. And so the mother came to deeply regret her decision....
Now, from my perspective as a both a Grief Coach and a Cat Momma, this well-intentioned mom made several mistakes.
Firstly, the reason she wanted to be present was that her own parents had not allowed her to be there when her pets had died, instead informing her after the fact by phone. So this was a case of a parent trying to fix their own childhood through their children. I've always found this terribly unfair to a kid - they are not responsible for your hurt and suffering when you were little. They need their own care.
Second, 8 and 10 is too young, in my opinion, to be present to watch someone die. They do not have the means to truly process it yet, even when they don't see it with their own eyes - eyes that can never un-see that moment.
Finally, if she was determined to have them be present, she should have explained the actual event MUCH more clearly. When an animal is "put to sleep," the drugs take effect VERY quickly and it is SHOCKING to watch. I'm sorry to use so many caps, but truly - it is traumatizing and intense and heartbreaking. And that alone should have made it obvious to her. This is too much for a grown-up, much less a child.
As adults, we can make the choice to stand by a loved one's side in their final moments. It is hard hard stuff. I have felt the life go out of both a hand and a paw. It is not something you get used to. Nor is it something that can "give you closure" in the sense that most people mean. You can be glad that you stepped up and bore witness, and were with them right to the end. Keeping that promise can help with the grieving process and lessen a bit of regret.
But a child doesn't know all this and does not deserve to carry the burden of their parent's unfinished business. I am glad this parent knew she made the wrong choice, but she does not explain why or what she could have done differently. I hope her boys are mending from this trauma and that they are more wisely guided in the future.
Please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org if I can be of service to you and your loved ones surrounding the issues of grief and loss.