How to help a 15 month old child deal with the loss of a pet?
February 24, 2017 9:25 AM   Subscribe

We have one pet: a 12 year old black lab. We have one child: a 15 month old girl. To our great sadness, the dog doesn't have much time left with us. This is going to be hard enough on my wife and me, but our daughter adores the dog like a sibling and I have no idea how to help her understand when he's gone and doesn't come back. Anyone gone through this before?

All the advice I find online talks about encouraging the child to talk openly about their feelings and to be honest with them about what happened and your own sadness. Well, our girl is starting to have some words, but this is a bit above her level. The next best advice seems to be "she's young and will forget quickly." I'm having trouble putting all my eggs in that basket, I'm hoping someone else who has gone through this or similar may have some advice.
posted by jermsplan to Pets & Animals (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is of course a challenge because your child is on the very early edge of being verbal, but I think the best policy for children is to tell them the truth, simplified to their age level. However, I also think it's important not to give them more information than they asked for. They will follow up (verbally or nonverbally) if they want to know more.

So, if the kid asks, "Doggy?" you say, "The doggy died and mommy/daddy is sad." (I'm presuming that at least early on you'll have trouble answering this without tearing up, given that I'm tearing up typing this). If the kid says, "OK" and runs off to play, then you stop there. If the kid looks sad / cries, you can say something like, "You're sad, you wish the doggy was still here to play with. I do too." If you need to cry with the kid, it won't hurt them, and when you're able, you transition you all to a new activity. Repeat as many times as necesary.

Although you may have to answer the same question a lot at first, I suspect that at this very young age she'll move on relatively quickly. Very young kids (even somewhat older than yours) are sometimes very matter of fact about these things, since it's hard for them to grasp the magnitude and permanency of things in the same way grownups do.

At the end of the day, what you need to convey is: The dog is gone. Sometimes we feel sad about that, but being sad is a normal part of life and we'll feel better soon. I don't think you have to work too hard to hide your feelings from the kid. Your being sad won't harm her as long as you present it as a normal part of life and continue to provide her with the usual amounts of love.

This is way over your kid's head right now, but if you want to tuck it away for down the road: the way I explain the importance of sadness to my preschoolers is that we feel sad when something happy ends. Even though it doesn't feel good to be sad, that's how we know that we were really happy about something. If we didn't have sadness, we couldn't have happiness. Your sadness about the dog lets you know how much you really loved him.

Best wishes to your family.
posted by telepanda at 10:10 AM on February 24, 2017 [50 favorites]

Mr. Rogers can help you with this book that you can read to her.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:28 AM on February 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm sorry about your dog. :(

Anecdata, but my parents gave away a cat (I was allergic) and an incompatible hunting dog (he was a biter) when I was about 20 months old and I apparently didn't even notice or inquire about the disappearance of these animals despite entertaining myself with them on the regular.
posted by xyzzy at 11:46 AM on February 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

My condolences. Be very careful not to use the words "put to sleep" or say the dog went to sleep and didn't wake up. You probably know that, but it's so important I thought I'd mention it.
posted by areaperson at 12:13 PM on February 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

If you can, get another puppy. Our old dog appreciated the company (and helped house train the puppy). Didn't hurt any less when the old guy went away, but having a puppy running around tends to help fill the dog shaped hole in the household.
posted by cfraenkel at 12:40 PM on February 24, 2017

"she's young and will forget quickly." I'm having trouble putting all my eggs in that basket

Our daughter was about 2.5 when her BFF's family lost two dogs in quick succession. J asked a couple questions in passing, but her friend who was about 2 never really made mention of it. I don't think a 15 month old is going to have any lasting reaction. That can be hard to deal with too as you are processing grief they don't yet know how to feel.
posted by yerfatma at 12:57 PM on February 24, 2017

I think you'll want to treat it like any transition - on the scale of things, I think this will be more traumatic for you than for her, and l think it will be less traumatic than something like a change in schedule/routine, change in childcare, or any of the developmental leaps that she's already gone through.

I'd just try to keep her life and routine pretty stable, and when it happens, use a lot of language, and be cautious not to project too many of your own feelings onto her. If you currently have routines that involve the dog - like regular walks or saying goodnight to the dog, or feeding the dog, maybe start thinking about what substitutes you can introduce. Might be a good time for a nice stuffed animal that can be involved in these routines?
posted by vunder at 1:22 PM on February 24, 2017

You should be prepared for the possibility that she's confused for a little while because a familiar friend is gone, but is otherwise unruffled. Little kids don't grok death. When my younger daughter was four our beloved family cat died. She pretty much shrugged her shoulders and moved on. It was way harder on the grown ups.
posted by Sublimity at 2:28 PM on February 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

This happened to us when our son was almost 2 and he also adored the dog. It was also very very sudden. He asked about her a lot and I kept saying her body stopped working and she died and we love her and miss her. He never showed sadness but the questions made it apparent he was thinking about her. He stopped asking about her about a year after she died but he will still bring it up matter of factly (like he'll point out her favorite ottoman and he still says she's his favorite pet). We are still heartbroken but stopped crying daily after about three months. Best of luck to you and I'm so sorry.
posted by wannabecounselor at 6:22 PM on February 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

For a kid that young, maybe just consider lying. Say the doggy went to live with its family at a nice farm upstate. The kid's not even one and a half yet, and that seems a bit soon to be explaining death and grieving to her. Definitely get a new pup!
posted by Ursula Hitler at 6:25 PM on February 24, 2017

That's awful and I'm not reading the details or the answers because they will make me cry.

But I wanted to say that I used to babysit for a family with a toddler whose dog died. One thing I remember that they told me is that they didn't want to draw and connection between the dog being sick and then the dog dying. They were worried that if they did this, the toddler would become anxious any time he or a family member got sick (like with a cold). So they did tell him that the dog died, but not that he died because he was sick. They also told me that even though they had been careful not to make the connection, they thought he had made it on his own because they heard him on the phone telling a relative that the dog got sick and died.

This kid was older than your baby (maybe 2.5?), so it won't generalize perfectly. But if you do decide to use the D word, avoiding talk of sickness is something you should consider.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:46 PM on February 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Our daughter was just under 2 when we lost a cat. Shortly after that we went on a 3 month trip to Grandma's house, bringing our other cat. She never mentioned the first cat at all. It was weird. When we lost the second cat before she turned 4 that was different. We had him put to sleep while she was at school and told her that he died at the vet. She was sad and we were so sad but we worked through it matter-of-factly and still talk about the cat now and again. It's not unpleasant to talk about now but oh man, it's so hard on the parents to do all this. But your kid will be fine and will probably be quite accepting even if sad or confused at times. Sorry about your doggy.
posted by amanda at 7:36 PM on February 24, 2017

This isn't quite the same (no, it's not the same at all), but we do dog sitting. Over the course of the last year (so, since my littlest turned 12mos and then going forward) we've sat for the same dog, in our home, multiple times. This was just as baby was developing words. So whenever the dog went back home he would inquire "dog-dog?") and point to where we were keeping her crate. And I would have to tell him "no, Annie's not here, Annie went home." And then he would go about his business. This lasted about a week each time.

Point being, some kids may never mention the dog again, and some kids may ask about the dog over and over. It's all in how you handle it. If you can hold yourself together enough to be calm the child will be calm too. If your child is crying, just hold them and let them cry. Narrate their feelings, validate their feelings, but give them the space to have their feelings, without them having to also deal with your feelings. In the end your child most likely move on faster than you will.

I'm sorry that your Labbie isn't well, and for your impending loss. Two cents, from someone who has been there - if you have to have the vet put the dog down, do it in the morning while your LO is at daycare, so that you have some time to process your feelings on your own before your have to try to explain it to your child. Don't do it at the end of the day.
posted by vignettist at 8:47 PM on February 24, 2017

I would not do the "Buddy went to stay with some nice folks in the country" thing. Just be matter-of-fact about a very natural process.
Dogs live shorter lives than people do, and that's okay. So do cats and fish. Some turtles can live a long time. Galapagos tortoises can live over a century. Some birds can live a long time. Cockatiels can live over twenty years.
What matters is that pets have a good home and lots of love during their lifetimes.

Periodically asking about the pet may be about object permanence (I can't see the dog, does it still exist?) Or something reminded the child about the dog and she needs to be told again, because the child forgot about him. Or she needs more clarification, the same way she asks repeatedly why the sky is blue, or why the ice cream is cold.

Take some pictures of them together, and some videos. Don't be in a hurry to get another pet to replace the lab. You need some time, too.
I am so sorry about your pending loss. He sounds like a a very good dog.
posted by TrishaU at 2:04 PM on February 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

My son was four when our cat of about the same age was euthaanized in our home. The illness and death within a couple weeks was a horrible shock to us adults but he didn't engage at all. I mean, he wanted to buy her treats and said goodbye when the time came (though he choose to be conscious or unconscious distress at the time or afterward. We read him "Saying Goodbye to Lulu", which is a non-religious, matter-of-fact book that I "like" a lot, which is to say I cry every single time I read it or honestly even think about it, but anyway. A 15-month-old is really not going to pick on much, honestly, unless you have a really unusual child.
posted by wnissen at 12:17 PM on February 26, 2017

Thank you very much, all. I've marked telepanda's answer as best to sort of close the question, but I want all of you to know that your input is helpful and comforting.
posted by jermsplan at 8:47 AM on February 28, 2017

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