How to explain pet death to a young child?
March 27, 2010 10:47 PM   Subscribe

Tomorrow morning we need to tell our 3.5 year old that our beloved dog has died. Please help.

I've read this previous question about explaining euthanasia to a preschooler.

Sadly, this was sudden (he was hit by a car) so the explanation that the dog is in a better place due to a long term illness doesn't apply.

Additional complication: we are not religious, explanations including heaven or God do not apply.

I've been given advice to tell her he went to live with someone else, but I think that would likely set expectations that he will return.

At the moment, the most logical choice seems to be to tell her just that "he died", and that we will miss him. Although she is familiar with the word, it has only ever been applied to bugs and batteries before. I know her understanding will be fuzzy but it allows for her to realize he is gone and grieve in whatever way a 3.5 year old does. We will support her and answer her questions as honestly as possible -- with the exception that we won't tell her about him being hit by a car for fear that it might cause unnecessary fear and confusion at this age (she knows that we have to be careful in parking lots and crossing the street so we don't get hit by cars, but it seems excessively cruel and unnecessary to illustrate this to a 3.5 year old this way).

This evening she saw that we were upset and crying and expressed some concern. She needs to know we are not fighting or mad at her.
Sorry for the ramble. It has been a long and difficult day.

The question is, do you have any additional or contrary advice or anecdotes? Thank you.
posted by ellenaim to Human Relations (24 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: When Sesame Street's Mr. Hooper died, the show was praised for doing a fantastic job explaining death to its young audience:

The adults...tearfully explain that when someone dies, they can never come back. Big Bird is dismayed, and the adults (all genuinely emotional) comfort him, explaining that they were lucky to have known and loved Mr. Hooper, and that they will always have their memories of him. It will never be the same without him, they say, but they will all help take care of Big Bird and life will continue on as normal. Bob fights back tears when it's his turn to explain death to Big Bird. Big Bird angrily demands to know why things have to be the way they are, and no one has a ready answer. Finally Gordon figures out what to say: "Because. Just because." This is perhaps the only answer that could make sense to Big Bird, at least for now, and he sadly accepts it....And the adults and Big Bird embrace.

Maybe watching it (starts about 15 second in) would give you ideas about how to frame the discussion and answer questions?

I hope this helps, and I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by sallybrown at 11:00 PM on March 27, 2010 [37 favorites]

Don't say that the dog went to "a farm" or whatever other euphemisms people are recommending - and know that there are parents of children her age who have to explain the death of people. I'm not saying that to minimize what you're going through (it's horrible when pets die, and it's horrible to have to explain death to a child) - I'm saying that as a first introduction to the fact of life that is death - a dog is pretty much the best case scenario. Be honest with her, and don't be afraid to let her see your own grief. I'm so sorry about your dog.
posted by moxiedoll at 11:01 PM on March 27, 2010

When my mother died, I told our three year old she died. That's what happened. I could hardly tell her that mum went to live on a farm. So if I would tell her the most serious thing, that her grandmother died, why wouldn't I tell her a less serious thing?

I think your girl will understand and feel according to her capacities, and that's ok. She isn't going to be as traumatised as you might fear, because she doesn't have the maturity yet to really understand the way that you can.

Dealing with death is part of learning to be human. In fact seeing grown-ups be sad, deal with sadness, and eventually recover from sadness is also good for her, I think.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:02 PM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Mr. Hooper is where I learned about death at 3 and a half. Honestly, I'd just show her that episode.
posted by Jairus at 11:13 PM on March 27, 2010

I have a daughter just a little older than yours, just turned 4 in fact, and we recently had a much-loved pet who died, our 14-year-old cat Hiro Protagonist. We tried to be as straightforward as possible with our daughter (also not being particularly religious), and I found her to be remarkably pragmatic and accepting about the whole thing. Whether that was just her or whether children tend to be that way, I couldn't say for sure, but I suspect the latter. We tried to be matter-of-fact, not hiding our sadness but not bewailing it either. We also buried the cat in our backyard, with a marker our daughter can find, and at that time we each said something we remembered about Hiro. Later we also talked with our daughter about how the parts of Hiro's body will be breaking into tiny pieces that become food for other living things like plants. I personally feel like simple truths are the best path, and that children generally can accept and understand a lot more than society tends to give them credit for.

Of course it's your call and you know your child best, but I'm not even sure it would be so bad to tell her the circumstances of your dog's death. An amorphous sense that some unnamed accident could bring death at any time could conceivably be more anxiety-producing for a kid than a genuine explanation. Not saying you have to get graphic at all, but narrative is one of the things that helps us all deal with tragedy, and life generally, and that's most true for kids I think -- knowing the story of what happened could be a help, not a cruelty.

All this of course just one dad's opinion -- IANA child psychologist, or indeed an expert of any kind.
posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 11:14 PM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Don't tell her that he's gone to live with someone else! After a while she may become quite upset that you don't let him come home.

I don't know if this will help at all, but my fraternal grandmother died in a car accident when I was the same age your daughter is now and my parents told me the plain unfrilled truth, with no talk of heaven. I remember trying to comfort and cheer my family by sharing a bag of pink popcorn & I don't remember being upset in the same way adults feel a loss like that at all. I've always had a vivid memory of that specific day, but none of the days that came after it, in terms of grieving (as we adults exp it) her death. I think children are pretty good at accepting death, as long as the adults around them don't flip out. When I offered my pink popcorn I was thanked, hugged, and kissed. I think that went a long way to helping me process the event - It wasn't the end of the world, and I had the power to help my family feel better.
posted by zarah at 11:18 PM on March 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

(Also, please let me add that I'm so sorry for your loss -- losing a beloved animal so suddenly is a terrible wrench, I've felt it myself and feel for you now. I agree with the posters above who said not to hide your grief, and I hope I didn't imply otherwise above.)
posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 11:20 PM on March 27, 2010

I agree with the advice so far. I'd add it might be nice to create a place in the house where your daughter can have some physical artifacts to remember your pet by - a photo, a collar, favorite toy. You could at least ask her if she's interested in helping create something like that as the process of putting it together might be nice for her.
posted by serazin at 11:22 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Tenth Good Thing About Barney is a book for young children about a pet's death.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:22 PM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

I was terrified when I had to explain to my 3-year-old why his recently purchased fish that he had picked out and named had died, like 48 hours after we had bought it.

I said that the fish had been very sick, and that we had tried to make it better, but that he had died.

I was shocked at how well he took it. He was sad, but perked back up in 10-15 minutes.

What I'm saying is, just be up front, but gentle, and your child might surprise you.

"It was an accident. It was no one's fault. But the dog was hurt really bad. We took the dog to the vet, and they worked very, very hard to make the dog better. They did everything they could, a really good job. But the dog was hurt very, very bad, and the vet couldn't save her, and she died. We're all very, very sad."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:23 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

One important point in the Mr. Hooper story is explaining that someone dies, they stay dead and can't come back (even if we wish they would). Otherwise, (and maybe even if you do) your child will probably not understand that being dead is permanent state.
posted by metahawk at 11:30 PM on March 27, 2010

Very sorry. Another book recommendation: Desser the Best Ever Cat is a great -- er, tearjerking and sad, but very nicely done -- children's book about pet death. One thing I liked about it a lot is how it shows the cat with the younger pre-parenthood parents, before the kid was born.
posted by kmennie at 11:54 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

My deepest condolences to you and your family on the loss of your canine family member.

I've had the great fortune of having four dogs throughout my life. The last one just died in 2007 and we still keep an 8x10 photo of her on the coffee table. I have that dog's collar as well as the first dog's. Even in my mid 40's I feel fortunate to have those two collars, and I dearly wish I hadn't lost track of the other two.

I've honestly no idea how to help with your young daughter, but, I can attest that, for me, having that collar from the first dog helped while I was growing up just as it and the other collar do now as an adult. It's helped for me to keep something tangible and very "personal" to the dog.

Perhaps you might ask your child if she would like to keep the dog's collar or a toy.

Best wishes to you all.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 11:54 PM on March 27, 2010

Best answer: Without a proper comprehension of death, and the weight and meaning the society gives it, you may be surprised how well your child copes with this.

In some ways - faced every day with an uncertain, arbitrary, ever-changing and largely confusing world, every single day - children are typically much better adapters to change than adults. She would probably have more difficulty with this at age 8 than 3. I guarantee you will find it much harder than she will. Even if she cries, like so many childhood emotions, it will be fleeting, though perhaps a later revisiting may happen.

Like telling a child about anything important: be straight-forward, calm, honest, and loving. She will be fine, you need to look after yourself, too. Best of luck.
posted by smoke at 1:00 AM on March 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Without a proper comprehension of death, and the weight and meaning the society gives it, you may be surprised how well your child copes with this.

Yes. I experienced no shortage of death in my early years -- grandparents, neighbor kids, personal heroes (I was big into motor racing at the time) -- and though it caused me sadness, it was never traumatic ...

Not until I was twelve and bored and I stumbled upon existentialism. That really messed me up for a while.
posted by philip-random at 1:19 AM on March 28, 2010

I remember when my grand mither died and we went to the funeral. I was five. There are pictures of me with a bright smile. I just didn't really get it, yet, though my mother had explained.

I think your child might not get it immediately, but will return to your explanation over the years, whenever the subject of death or loss crops up. If you do it right, this will help her for years.

You got a lot of good advice. Be honest, also about the cause. Simple explanations, and elaborate if there are further questions.

I sorry for your loss!
posted by Omnomnom at 1:28 AM on March 28, 2010

Oh, and, she will probably pick up cues on how to react from you. If you tread on eggshells and act as though she is going to burst into tears she may well suppose (without thinking) that this is expected of her and burst into tears. Kids are often sensitive that way.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:34 AM on March 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Dr Samuel Johnson says:

If the man who turnips cries,
Cry not when his father dies,
'Tis a proof that he had rather
Have a turnip than his father.

If you are all restrained about this, but betray upset over lesser things, what lessons about priorities and emotions will she get?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:56 AM on March 28, 2010

If you're not willing to (in your mind) lie about God, why would you think lying about the dog going away to another owner would be any more productive?

Just tell the truth. Expect tears. Have plenty of hugs ready.
posted by carlh at 4:42 AM on March 28, 2010

I'd mark the event with some kind of simple ceremony to remember dog. It doesn't have to be religious in any way, shape, or form. You could just bring some pictures out to the backyard, everyone hold hands in a circle, share a few happy memories and then light some fireworks. Just something to mark the occasion so your child understands that this is important.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:19 AM on March 28, 2010

Response by poster: We told her he died and was gone. She asked when he was coming back a few times, why he was dead, where he was, and if we could give him medicine to make him better. We told her he wasn't coming back, it was an accident, that he wasn't anywhere, he was just gone, that we couldn't give him medicine, and that we would be sad and we would miss him. She said she wasn't sad because she has a toy doggie.

I'm sure it will come up again and that she will forget what we have told her, much like Big Bird had forgotten about Mr. Hooper. I recommend that clip to anyone in this situation. There are other best answers that I'll come back and mark but that one really did it for me.

Thank you everyone. I'm an infrequent contributor but dedicated lurker; this community is priceless.
posted by ellenaim at 5:23 AM on March 28, 2010 [9 favorites]

I'm so sorry about your beloved dog, it sounds like you did exactly the right thing with your 3-year-old.

It wasn't until my son was 5 years old that pet death really hit him in the way how final it was and how much he missed his cat. She died over a year ago and he still talks about her while he cuddles the stuffed cat that he named after her. We talk about how fun and playful she was and that we miss her.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 6:52 AM on March 28, 2010

I have a copy of The Tenth Good Thing About Barney that I'll happily mail you on Monday, if you'd like. Just Mefil mail me.
posted by anastasiav at 9:50 AM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I just wanted to say that it sounds like you did an excellent job. Gentle honesty is really the best way to go with kids of any age. They will think of you as someone who will tell the truth, even when it isn't something they want to hear, and will trust you implicitly. I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by katemcd at 11:54 AM on March 29, 2010

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