When my kids were nearly 4 and 1.5, we lost our 9 year old dog to cancer. It came as a shock to all of us. After being our first baby for many years, he had taken a couple of demotions in life after our kids were born, but he was still an important family member.
As a parent, losing a four-legged family member can be heartbreaking. While we are coping with our own sadness, we also have to figure out how to help our kids navigate sadness, possible confusion, and questions about life and death. The big questions.
For most of human existence, we were surrounded by birth and death. Today we are mostly shielded from it. Many of us never witness a birth aside from the births of our own children, and if we are lucky, we only witness the death of a loved one as a peaceful process at the end of a long, well-lived life. Although we are lucky to live in an age in which death is an infrequent part of life, there are also some downsides in that we do not learn to cope with it until it hits us hard. Having family pets can change this.
As sad as it is to lose a pet, it can be helpful to recognize that death is a natural part of life. Having a pet can help kids learn and begin to cope with this fact. Experiencing a loss while you are young and learning about the world can provide preparation, in a way, for bigger losses we all eventually experience. To help kids process the loss, it’s helpful to offer a brief explanation of what happened, answer their questions honestly, provide time and space for them to express their emotions, and keep an open dialogue.
PROVIDE A BRIEF EXPLANATION OF WHAT DEATH MEANS
When our dog died, it was a natural death overnight (while my husband happened to be out of town). I was there with him, but both of my daughters were sleeping. In the morning, they saw his body. I explained that he had died. This meant that even though his body was still there, it didn’t work anymore. He couldn’t run, jump, eat, play, or do any of the things that living creatures can do. My older daughter, then 4, wanted to know if he was ok. I reassured her that he is ok and not hurt or sad. Depending on your beliefs, you can share what you believe happens after bodies and souls leave this life.
We made sure to avoid euphemisms like, “he went to sleep.” Young children do not understand euphemisms and are unlikely to comprehend that when you say “sleep” you actually mean “death.” Conflating the two can make it more difficult for them to begin to understand what death means. It can also make them scared of going to sleep themselves.
ANSWER THEIR QUESTIONS SIMPLY AND HONESTLY
My daughter had a few questions on the morning of our dog’s death, but not many. I was ready for a barrage of questions. My kids were at the age of asking questions about everything and a simple trip to the grocery store usually resulted in hundreds of questions. This time the barrage didn’t come. The direct experience and the basic information I provided was enough for my daughter in the immediate short term. In the weeks and months that followed many more questions came out. In fact, a few years later both of my kids still ask questions about our dog and how he died, sometimes as a gateway to other life and death questions they are starting to grapple with.
LET THEM EXPRESS THEIR EMOTIONS AND SEE YOU EXPRESS YOURS
We parents often feel that we need to be strong and stoic for our kids so we don’t scare them with our emotions. It’s true that kids are naturally concerned when they see a parent crying, but it’s important to set an example for them that it’s ok to cry. Crying is a healthy expression of emotion. If our kids never see us cry, they may get the message that we should hide our emotions or the things we are upset about. Letting kids know that you are sad also helps them feel less alone. Grieving together is better than grieving alone.
KEEP AN OPEN DIALOGUE
Understanding and coming to terms with something as profound as death is a lifelong process. You may find that the big questions come out at bedtime, when kids (and adults) tend to be most likely to reflect and be philosophical. If you are going through a philosophical phase, it may help to bulid some time for these questions into your bedtime routine so you are not trying to discuss life and death with a rising frustration level. Even if they fall asleep 20 minutes later today, I believe these moments will pay off as kids grow into teenagers and adults. Kids will ask a lot of tough questions over the years. Giving the perfect answer each time is not necessary, but I believe showing a willingness to engage even when it’s inconvenient, at least some of the time, sets a precedent of facing life’s biggest mysteries and challenges together.