How to explain dog death to a 2 year old?
March 21, 2011 7:39 AM   Subscribe

Explaining near future pet death to a 2-year-old. Help please.

Yes, I've read this and this. Those cases are bit older than my child (2 years and a few months), although I did buy the books recommended in those posts. My son is probably too young for them though and isn't really into books very much.

My wonderful dog, who has been ill for pretty much my son's entire life, is on a sharp decline. He is at home, thankfully, but we know that the end is upon us -- possibly in the coming weeks.

What we've done so far: I have emphasized more lately that doggy is sick and that doggy has to go to the doctor frequently.

My specific questions are:

- With a 2-year-old, do we show our emotions or do we hide them? He tends to get upset if we're upset/crying. If it is best for him, we can try to put on a brave face. When our dog has been in crisis and we need to run him to the ER, we've been trying to stay calm.

- How do we explain that our dog is "gone"? I can envision our son asking where the dog is over and over and over again. (He has a tendency to do this no matter how many times we explain something.) We are not religious and saying that he went to Heaven is not an option, although I am not opposed to having some sort of storyline about where he went.

- How early do we start talking about death? I can imagine either the dog becoming much worse all of a sudden and us having to make a quick decision, or us scheduling something and knowing that it is coming. Is it better to talk about it before it happens if we can?

- Do we make a big deal out of "the last goodbye"? I cannot imagine that my 2-year-old would understand such a thing, but if it would help him understand the bigger picture, we would do it.

We moved recently, so we don't have a pediatrician to talk to about the developmentally appropriate way to talk about this.
posted by k8t to Pets & Animals (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 


My sister told her then toddler, that their sick cat went to a farm in the country so he could be happier and run around in the fields and chase mice. Worked well.
posted by lampshade at 7:57 AM on March 21, 2011


Thanks Faint of Butt. I bought that book and it skewed a little older than my son.
posted by k8t at 7:58 AM on March 21, 2011


Doh, err... bought that video.
posted by k8t at 7:59 AM on March 21, 2011


I think two is really young to understand much of death, however:

- By all means show your emotions. But I wouldn't be wailing or anything, but it's okay for him to see you sad/crying. Yes, it's important to be calm, just as you were when you had to take the dog to the ER. You can be both calm and sad.

-Tell your son that the dog's body got so sick and old that his body stopped working. He died. He will not be coming back. Repeat as necessary.

-I wouldn't bring up death until the event.

-Do not make a big deal of the last goodbye. If the death is seriously imminent, then have your son give him a pat and say goodbye, if he feels so inclined.
posted by Sassyfras at 8:00 AM on March 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


We recently lost our cat after a few months' illness. I didn't try to hide that I was upset, but didn't dwell on it either. She died overnight one night and we did not let the kids see the body. When we told them, our 4-year-old cried a little, but the 2 1/2-year-old didn't seem to get it. Even several weeks later she would talk about our cat as though she were still around, and we'd have to remind her "Josie's dead." Likely you will have a harder time with this than your son will.
posted by libraryhead at 8:02 AM on March 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think if you talk about death after telling him doggy going to doctor, he may associate going to the doctor with death at two. I would make up a story along the lines of lampshade but would say he went to the country farm to rest and try and get better leaving open the possibility that at a later date you do explain death.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:08 AM on March 21, 2011


My best friend's two year old asked about their dog for about a year after he died. He was convinced the dog was hiding in the closet or under the bed. I'm not 100% certain what his mom told him (she was also non-religious) but I think it was something along the lines of "Fido went to sleep." So don't do that.
posted by desjardins at 8:09 AM on March 21, 2011


My kids were 3 and 4 when we had to deal with this, but I chose to be very matter-of-fact. I cried if I felt sad, and explained that I missed [my cat] [my dad]. Basically what Sassyfras said.

18 mos out from that time, my kids mention missing [my cat or my dad], but I don't think they're actually heart broken over it. I feel like they've clued in to death as a vague thing that happens in their world, akin to 'cars need something called gas to go' or 'grown-ups go to someplace called work most days' -- but they don't actually understand. My hope is that a matter-of-fact manner has made the day when they do have to really understand less of a surprise -- that they will not be surprised to feel grief, and not be utterly stunned that loved ones can cease to be.
posted by MeiraV at 8:25 AM on March 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Telling a child the dog "went away" just leaves open the door to the child that the dog may come back, or that you can go visit.

Tell the truth, but not in advance. If possible, give the child a chance to see the dog shortly after it has died. Are you going to bury the dog yourself? Bury the ashes? Let the child participate fully in these rituals, or made a ritual of your own to say goodbye.

Don't be afraid to cry yourself. It's ok to tell your child that no one really knows what happens when we die.

I'm sorry for your loss. I hope you are able to face it together, as a family.
posted by anastasiav at 8:31 AM on March 21, 2011


Maybe I'm just weird, but when I was very, very young, I started watching the Discovery channel. Therefore, the death of a pet became "_____ has gone under the ground to feed the plants" And when I was a little older, I understood the cycle of life process so "feeding the plants" became "the insects ate him, so the worms could eat that, so the plants could eat that, so the other animals of the world could be well fed and happy", more or less.
posted by DisreputableDog at 8:32 AM on March 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry, this is one of those very tough things, isn't it? Some thoughts ...
This is tougher on you than on your kid.
Contain the information. No long build up. Deal with what's going on in the moment it's happening.
The concept of "future" or "soon" death is incomprehensible to a 2 year old.
Stay away from heavy emphasis on "sick" since you don't want the connection to be made everytime he's sick or you're sick. Stay with old and worn-out in the body.
Might be the right time to communicate whatever afterlife beliefs you have. I remember the concept of "heaven" coming in very handy when my mom died, even though that's not a big part of my own belief system -- kids are comforted by the end not really being the total end.
Remember little kids are really literal -- I remember my youngest being horror-struck when my mother would say, "I'll read to you later, darling, Grandma's blind in the morning." My daughter asked me if my mom was really blind in the mornings.
Good luck with this and sorry that you are losing your pal.
posted by thinkpiece at 8:36 AM on March 21, 2011


I'm so sorry that you have to go through this. I'm the OP from the first link you reference, and I have to admit that at the time I hadn't given much thought to how my other daughter, who was 1.5 at the time, would react. What happened in our case was that after we told my 3.5 year old, she told my 1.5 year old, quite matter-of-factly. That 1.5 year old is now 2.5, and although she still doesn't "get" death, she does still occasionally, quite randomly, say things like "Jake died".

Your son will continue to ask about the dog, and it will break your heart, and you will just have to keep reminding him that he's gone, and not here any more, that he was sick and he died. There isn't some magic thing you can say that will make him understand immediately and stop asking about the dog. The understanding of "gone" will come over time. You will just keep having to remind him until suddenly one day he will realize the dog is not coming back. Personally, I wouldn't make up any stories that might lead him to believe the dog could come back (like the gone-to-a-farm thing), I would stick to the facts that he can understand and don't mention anything that he might not understand.

After a few days my daughter asked if we could take him to the vet so he could get better. Although he was killed by a car instantly and that was obviously not an option, we told her that we had taken him to the vet and the vet could not make him better and that he wasn't coming back. It will take time, and you will have to repeat yourself, and having to rehash it will continue to interrupt your personal grieving process.

Both my girls, who are now 2.5 and 4.5, still occasionally remind me that he's dead, though without any intended malice. Saturday will mark one year since he died, and my heart is still broken. The kids have long forgotten what a great dog he was.
posted by ellenaim at 8:37 AM on March 21, 2011 [6 favorites]


I think that delaying it will just make it worse. He's 2, he's not going to have a lot of philosophical ideas or questions about it (although we may take it that way). I'd say the real words, definitely don't say he went to sleep. Say he got sick and he died and it's sad and we'll always remember him but we're glad he's not suffering anymore. He will likely ask over and over but it's not necessarily because he's trying to understand - it's because he's 2 (as you know from the other things he does this with).

The way I deal with it is to say the words even though they won't understand it and continue to talk to them in an honest and open way. They will understand what they can at that age and absorb more as they get older. When my daughter was about 3, we would pass the cemetary a lot and she asked me what it was so I just told her - it's where they bury your body when you die. She didn't freak out or have nightmares or anything because she didn't totally understand what that means. If I had waited until she was 6 (as she is now), she definitely would have. But now she has internalized it and we may talk about it but it doesn't feel uncomfortable or anything.
posted by dawkins_7 at 8:49 AM on March 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


do we show our emotions or do we hide them? He tends to get upset if we're upset/crying. If it is best for him, we can try to put on a brave face. When our dog has been in crisis and we need to run him to the ER, we've been trying to stay calm.

I think you answered your own question there.
posted by three blind mice at 8:52 AM on March 21, 2011


I know the "Kitty went to a farm in the countryside" people mean well, but please don't. My parents told me this about my grandfather's cat when I was little, and I mentioned when I was TWENTY-ONE YEARS OLD, "Remember how grandpa's cat went to that farm? How'd that work out in the end anyway?"

My mother laughed and was like, "Eyebrows, the cat DIED."

I was honestly shocked and kinda upset. Fairly chagrined that I was that dumb (DUH! DUH! DUH!) but it had just never occurred to me my parents would lie to me about something like that and so I never really questioned it. I'm not permanently scarred by it or angry with my parents, but I was suddenly mourning for a cat who had died almost two decades ago!

Part of why two year olds ask the same thing over and over again is to consolidate their knowledge and ensure that what they think is correct. So if he asks, "Where's doggy?" you can always say, "Do you remember?" or "Where do you think doggy is?" "I think he died." "That's right, sweetie." He doesn't necessarily know what it MEANS, but he's trying to confirm that the information he thinks he remembers is correct.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:54 AM on March 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


My sister told her then toddler, that their sick cat went to a farm in the country so he could be happier and run around in the fields and chase mice. Worked well.

This sort of thing doesn't help issues of trust later. As soon as the kid figures it out or confronts you about it or otherwise learns the truth, they're also going to learn that truth that sometimes Mommy and Daddy lie to you when it serves their interests. Mommy said that Doggy went to a farm. Mommy also says that she loves me...

I dunno. In general, I think the times you most fervently want to tell a fib are the times when you should be the most certain not to.

With a 2-year-old, do we show our emotions or do we hide them? He tends to get upset if we're upset/crying.

Shouldn't he be upset and sad about it?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:52 AM on March 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


From watching my own 2-year-old niece, I'd say that two-year-olds don't quite have strong memory retention when it comes to complicated things, or a strong sense of time. They're very much about "here and now." So trying to explain something that happens in the future won't work -- stick to "here and now" information ("we are taking the dog to the doctor because the dog is sick"); having a sit-down about "someday in the future the dog is not going to be here any more" won't work because they don't grasp the concept of "someday" or of "future".

My niece is about two and a half and is only just now starting to even grasp the concept of missing people; my parents usually live nearby her and are there a lot, but they went for an extended visit to Florida, and apparently my niece kept asking every day if she could visit Nana and Grampy and if they were were ever coming back (even though my brother kept telling her that no, they were gone away for a while, but yes they were going to come back someday). You may have a lot of similar "hey, where's doggy?" questions.

I don't see why you can't be sad; not rending-of-garments, keening, and such, but don't try hiding your tears. Your son may cry if he sees you crying, but just explain that "the dog is gone and that makes me feel sad right now, but I will feel better in a little while and it'll be okay."

Good luck. If it's any consolation, I doubt your son will remember anything about this time; if he does it'd probably only be in flashes or vague somethings.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:40 AM on March 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I can envision our son asking where the dog is over and over and over again.

Your child will do this and it's completely normal and nothing to worry about, however uncomfortable it is for you. Children this young simply cannot process death as an "end". When I was four, my great grandfather died. My mom explained to me that he was dead, and since she does believe in heaven she told me that's where he was and that we wouldn't be seeing him again. Even so I continued to ask where he was over and over for about 6 months.
posted by katyggls at 11:35 AM on March 21, 2011



- With a 2-year-old, do we show our emotions or do we hide them? He tends to get upset if we're upset/crying. If it is best for him, we can try to put on a brave face. When our dog has been in crisis and we need to run him to the ER, we've been trying to stay calm.


In my experience with pets and death, it's fine to show emotions, even strong ones - as long as you can show that at some point, you've got it under control. I'm going to imagine that you're talking about some blubbering and some heaving sobs and a soggy hankie - not throwing yourself across a grave and wailing and railing. And you know your kid and what he can handle, but my kid survived floods of tears just fine. You can talk about how to feel better after you've been that sad though at two, it's not really going to get all that deep.

When our dog died when our daughter was one and a half, my grief was really quite shocking and my husband and I would take turns going for a walk if we felt it would overwhelm her during the first few days (because there were times when our different needs coincided, and thankfully one or the other could step up for her), though I wept quietly often. We also sent around an email to all our friends who'd care, telling them what happened and asking them not to bring it up, that their sympathetic looks would be enough. It helped, not having to tell the story again and again. It was harder to explain to her that we didn't have to go to the dog park any more, and harder to still go there without a dog because our daughter still wanted to see her doggie friends there.

Our daughter is older now, and we find she talks more when we're in the car or walking parallel and not looking directly at each other. I'm very sad because a friend of mine died last week, and I know she has questions about the funeral on Wednesday, so I've planned to take her grocery shopping this afternoon and we can explore it as far as she wants to then. But that's seven, not two. Two means when it happens, you wait until you've got his attention instead of facing him with it, keep it brief, be short and truthful in answering him directly, and move on. Seven seems to be all about probing.



- How do we explain that our dog is "gone"? I can envision our son asking where the dog is over and over and over again. (He has a tendency to do this no matter how many times we explain something.) We are not religious and saying that he went to Heaven is not an option, although I am not opposed to having some sort of storyline about where he went.


This is where Sesame Street's discussion helps.

If I remember correctly, kids that age ask things repeatedly because they're looking for consistent answers, not because they really don't remember (though they do have miniscule attention spans). Developmentally, he's mimicking conversational tones and doing what he can to draw out the interaction. You can try to redirect. "Where's Wunnaful dawg?" "He died, little buddy. He's gone." "Where's gone?" "Just gone. It's very sad, but he's not hurting any more. Do you like crackers? Do you want a cracker?"

- How early do we start talking about death? I can imagine either the dog becoming much worse all of a sudden and us having to make a quick decision, or us scheduling something and knowing that it is coming. Is it better to talk about it before it happens if we can?

They don't have a sense of time, so when it happens is probably fine. Follow your kid's lead. Our dog was sick for a week or so, and passed within a few days, and I had to make the decision to euthanize on my own at the vet's - so our daughter only knew when she went to the vet the last time and I didn't come back with her. In the end, it wasn't something she focused on.

Building up an association with being sick, going to the doctor and not coming back wasn't something I wanted to emphasize either, especially at that age, lest she apply it to her own doctor visits.


- Do we make a big deal out of "the last goodbye"? I cannot imagine that my 2-year-old would understand such a thing, but if it would help him understand the bigger picture, we would do it.


Not for the sake of the 2-year old - but if you need some time to give your old dog the best day ever before it's time, then of course your kid being a part of it is more than fine. But I'll tell you, at seven, my daughter remembers very little of being two (I believe it's that memory comes with vocabulary?) and her construct of what happened with our dog comes from what we've told her since, and pictures. For that matter, she also believes our dog, a rottie played dress-up with her, took her swimming in an aquarium, and made sandwiches and poured her milk for her.

Please accept my empathies, and while I think you are awesome for caring so much about your child's response, please take care of yourself. You don't need a pediatrician to talk about the developmentally appropriate way - you know your own kid. Kids that age are pretty resilient, they're made to be. It's you who'll likely need the comforting when you realize you haven't heard the click of toenails in too long, or don't have to turn down the pet aisle, or that you're still finding dog hairs in little swirls months from now.
posted by peagood at 11:40 AM on March 21, 2011


A friend told her son that "God is taking care of [dog] for us now." Her son told her that he doesn't like God any more. I would avoid lies that make it sound like someone has control over the situation. You can say, "They tried really hard, but [dog] was very old and he was sick for a long time."
posted by anaelith at 11:50 AM on March 21, 2011


You can say, "They tried really hard, but [dog] was very old and he was sick for a long time."

I'll grant I'm not a) a parent, b) a child psychologist, or c) an educator, but for some reason talking about how the dog was "sick" just feels like it would backfire, in the sense that the kid could then equate "sicK" with "fatal", and then get terrified Mom's going to go away forever next time she gets a cold or something.

"Sick" doesn't always mean fatal, but eventually "old" always does. "They tried really hard, but the dog was just very very old, and when bodies get very old they stop working finally, and so he's gone and we miss him. But we'll be done being sad someday soon."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:52 PM on March 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I grew up on a farm, so was confronted with death at a very young age. My parents and siblings never tried to sugar coat it - it was always painted that death was simply part and parcel of life, and that quality (often followed by length) of life was the important factor. People were sometimes sad and sometimes not, and as most of what adults do is mystifying to children, I just added it to the tally.

Two is really too young to either understand or care, and if your kid gets upset about it, think about all the other trivial shit that two year olds get upset about: their emotions are as summer showers; fast and intense. Don't beat yourself up about it.

But don't lie. That's just setting bad practices in place and putting off the inevitable. Things die, it's an important part of life and the sooner kids get an understanding of that, the sooner they are okay with it.

Note, I did have one episode, prompted by a dream, where I was worried mum and dad might die too. They just laughed that off and said "not for a long, long time" and it quelled my anxieties quickly to see how lightly they took it.
posted by smoke at 4:27 PM on March 21, 2011


Our cat was run over not too long ago. Our two-year old didn't register it, and our four-year old registered it but didn't seem affected at all. "[Cat] got hit by a car. He's asleep now, and he's not going to wake up, so you need to give him a pat on the head and say goodbye" did the trick. I can't tell if it was 'this is a big deal so I'm going to ignore it rather than try to deal with it', or just something so foreign and so alien that it defied any comprehension or analysis, but neither of them was the slightest bit fazed by any of it.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:16 PM on March 21, 2011


Our cat died just over a year ago, when our daughter was 2.5. We spent a lot of time talking about how much we loved kitty, but her body got old and stopped working and she died. Then we buried her in the yard where her body would feed plants and help them to grow.

She's now come up with her own theory of reincarnation & announces quite regularly that kitty is going to be reborn as a new kitten & come to live with us.
posted by belladonna at 5:52 PM on March 21, 2011


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