"How am I going to explain this to my kids?"
It's a question that Dr. Corey Gut, DVM, was asked a lot in her line of work by pet parents who were faced with the loss of their beloved animal.
The question became a personal endeavor for Dr. Gut to help answer when her sister's dog Bailey was diagnosed with liver cancer. "My sister’s daughter, my niece Lexi, was extremely attached to this dog and at the time she was an only child and very young and this was going to be her first experience with death," Gut tells petMD.
When her sister discovered there were limited resources to help parents out in this situation, Gut wrote a book specifically for her niece called Being Brave For Bailey. A family project in every sense of the word (Gut's mother provided the illustrations for the book), she began altering the book for different patients and their families to help them through their own time of grief.
The book was striking a nerve with families who were looking for ways to help their children understand what was happening, and to let them properly mourn. With that, Gut (who works at DePorre Animal Hospital in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.) launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to make the book accessible to everyone, and since then, Being Brave For Bailey has been making an impact in households and libraries across the country. Gut says she has received countless thank you letters, emails, and cards from pet parents all over expressing their gratitude. Gut saves all of these tokens in a binder.
"The response has been amazing and it’s such an emotional thing for me because, I’m sure as every veterinarian can agree, one of the most difficult things we deal with is euthanasia," she says. "You feel so desperate, so helpless—you want to make everything okay.”
Being Brave For Bailey follows the journey of a child's relationship with her dog from a young age, to the dog getting older and sicker, to, eventually, the always difficult decision to end the dog's life. Gut (pictured below with her dog Vinnie) says the inclusion of euthanasia was important to include because, "That’s very hard for someone of any age, but [it's especially difficult] for a child to understand the concept.”
Gut, who collaborated with licensed therapists and guidance counselors on the project, explains that one of the most important factors in helping a child through this, is to have them be part of the process. "Children can often resent their parents for the decision being made," Gut says, but by allowing them to have some control in the situation, it becomes "extremely therapeutic for them."
For instance, a parent can ask a child for their input on matters like what kind of tree should be planted in the pet's honor, or what object (be it a bone or a blanket) should be buried with the animal.
The vet also points out that language is important when it comes to talking to kids about this heartbreaking subject. Rather than phrases like 'Put to sleep,' it's better to use words like 'dead' or 'death' to avoid future confusion. Same goes for the 'Dog went to the farm' routine. Gut acknowledges that parents are doing their best and protecting their children's feelings, but in the long run, using succinct and direct phrases can serve as a healthy and valuable tool throughout life.
While Gut says that every family's channels of communication are different, she hopes the book can "leave that avenue open" for honest discussions about how they are feeling.
She tells petMD that while she's had requests for a cat version of the book, the response has, overwhelmingly been positive from all types of pet owners of every age range. "This has been an amazing experience, all around for me, helping families through such a tough issue.”
Being Brave For Bailey is available for purchase and/or donation through the book's official website.
Images via Jaime Meyers; Jim Hoover