Q:Our beloved family dog is nearing the end of his life. We are hoping to have a few months with him before the day we lose him. How do I begin to prepare my two kids, 5 and 8, for his passing?
Good for you to give thought to preparing your children for your pup’s end of life journey. Some parents don’t realize how tremendously impactful losing a pet can be. Many adults themselves have clear, strong memories of such an experience, never having forgotten a detail of it. Not only is the loss profound, but understanding death is exceptionally hard for children.
Learning about death is so important and difficult that I devoted an entire chapter to it in my first book, “Just Tell Me What to Say,” which I occasionally reference in this column. I urge you to take the time to read the chapter, “Why is the Goldfish Floating in the Toilet?” as it is packed with valuable information, gives a thorough explanation of how children learn about death and offers scripts with which to talk to your children.
There is actually a developmental component to the child’s ability to grasp the concept of death. Before the age of 4 years, children simply don’t get it. The person or animal is just gone. But 4 years is the age that they begin to explore death. It surfaces in their play; they ask lots of questions about it; and they become worried about it. “I don’t want to die.” “Are you going to die?”
For everyone and most of all for children, death is about separation. In fact, the child needs to learn that death is the very end. It is the final separation. And THAT is really a hard and painful lesson. Children can’t fathom being without someone they love.
It isn’t until well after 6 years old that children begin to know that death is permanent. Before then they may think the person or animal will come back. A child may wonder all kinds of things like who will feed the animal now? Where is he making his poops? Where does he sleep?
Then there are all the questions that arise about what happens to the pup’s “all done” body. Where does it go? What does it look like? It is easy to see how the topic of death is kind of a Pandora’s Box.
A big part of understanding death is learning that death is part of the cycle of life. Most children today (in west Los Angeles anyway!) aren’t exposed to old age and how people look and act toward the end of the life cycle. Our very old ones are often shut away, in homes and care facilities. Children don’t witness aging bodies, seeing how they just don’t work as well as they once did, and become familiar with heading toward the end of life.
As morbid as it may sound, I hope that your children will be able to see that their beloved pet is getting very, very old. He is not frisky and full of energy; he gets tired easily; it is harder for him to get up. All of these are signs that soon he will reach the end of his life cycle and die. That is a big part of the preparation. What your kids having previously learned about the life cycle will give true meaning to their understanding as they see it in action.
You will recognize the signs of your pup’s end as it gets closer, hopefully. You will point them out to your children with true sadness in your affect. In this case, time is on your children’s side, as it allows for a slow anticipation and adaptation to the coming reality.
I think it’s a good idea to tell the kids after a visit to the vet (actual or contrived), that the vet has said that Pup is very old and that he is not doing well. Likely, one will ask if he is going to die. This will be your chance to say that while you wish it weren’t so, that, yes, he will. All things that are alive will one day die. Pup’s lifetime is coming to an end.
To learn more about dealing with the death, answering the afterlife questions, funerals, burials, discussions (or not) about heaven, I again refer you to my book. It’s all there.
I want to add one more thing. It is not uncommon for kids to ask, very soon after a pet’s death, to get another pet. I urge you to think twice about your timing. Not only do we need to experience and process our feelings of loss and sadness, but we really can’t replace a beloved pet. Fido was your one and only. Perhaps better to say, “I am feeling so sorry that Fido has died, that I just need to feel my sadness now. I am not ready to think about getting another dog just yet. One day we will.” You are modeling for your children how we deal with death.
BBB is a child development and behavior specialist in Pacific Palisades. She can be reached through betsybrownbraun.com.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.