Explaining euthanasia to a preschooler
April 1, 2007 7:00 PM   Subscribe

Share your personal stories about explaining euthanasia to a preschooler.

I have a 21 year old cat who has become simply miserable. Drastic lifesaving measures would only prolong her discomfort at this point. I love my cat, and don't want to put her down, but I believe I'm going to follow the vets recommendation.

However, despite my familiarity with psychological and ethical implications of death and dying, and despite reading tons of stuff on the web about explaining death to preschoolers, I find myself tearing up and getting emotional when I even think about taking Elderly Cat to the vet, and haven't been able to formulate a method for talking to my son about what is going to happen. I want to be honest with him, and I want him to realize that death is an inevitable part of life, but I don't want him to be frightened.

So, I'm asking for personal stories about explaining a pet's death or euthanasia to a child. What worked for you? How did you find the strength to hold yourself together and not be a soggy weeping mess? Would you, in this case, even try to explain euthanasia, or would you just tell him she passed on? I think I'm so upset about losing my long term cuddle buddy that I'm not thinking very clearly.
posted by dejah420 to Pets & Animals (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I wouldn't even get into the euthanasia part. Just that the pet has passed away.

It's okay for you to be sad about it. One of our cats died when I was five and I vividly remember being driven to daycare by my mom and I was really upset and I asked her "what are we going to do now?" and her response was that we would be sad for a while. (My mom was also really upset about the cat's death.)
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 7:14 PM on April 1, 2007

I have never done this in such a personal situation in my own family, since I have no kids. However, when I taught kindergarten, we had to discuss death (pet and human) in class a fair bit.

The most important point, in my mind, was to avoid the whole idea and phraseology of 'going to sleep,' 'put to sleep.' Young children are very literal. You don't want to invite them to confuse death with sleep, which could become obviously scary.

I remember some frank discussions. Basically we would say something like "X's grandmother has died and she is feeling very sad about that." Then we'd wait for the questions and just moderate the discussions, letting the questions lead. The kids seemed to know how much they could handle and wanted to know. These were tough questions, though, and we tried to answer honestly.

"Why did she die?"

"Her body got very old. It had been living a long time and just got tired. Living things get old after a very long time. When they're old, sometimes they get sick. They feel bad. Their bodies hurt and they feel tired. Sometimes when people/animals are very old and very sick, we can't make them better."

"Where is she now?"

"Well, I don't know. People believe a lot of different things about what happens to you after you die. Some people think that even though she's not on earth alive, she can still see you and think about you and send you love. Some people believe that you live again as another creature. What we do know is that their bodies don't hurt any more. They aren't tired and in pain any more."

"Is she coming back?"

"When people/animals die they don't come back, at least not in the same way. We won't see her again. We won't do [this, that, and the other] on earth with her again. But we will remember her and we will still do [X] and think of her."

When you get to this last point, it's a good time to set up a ritual or memorial with the child. It could be anything the kid likes the sound of, that assures them that the living will remember the dead, and do their best to grieve while living. I'm not talking about a burial, but a special tradition that you start, like getting a picture printed and hanging it in a place the child can choose. Really, only you and the child can choose the right meaningful memorial. To me, the important part is not just that you're teaching about death, but that you're also teaching about the necessity of grief, and how to grieve with intentionality and dignity.
posted by Miko at 7:19 PM on April 1, 2007 [14 favorites]

I just went through this. My vet said it's common since people often get their cats in their 20's, and have their kids in their 30's. By the time the kids are preschoolers the cats are quite elderly. My cat was 18. My sons are 4 yrs and 8 mos. I was a soggy weeping mess and didn't even try to hide it. I just said I was sad and would miss her (the cat).

We are religious, so I could say with complete honesty that no one knows for sure where somebody goes when they die, but we think they go to heaven. My son just accepted this, and I didn't have to have a tricky philosophical discussion.

I also said that she was in a lot of pain, and that, even though we were sad that she wasn't going to be with us, she would be happy because she wouldn't hurt any more.

The vet and the staff there were wonderful. They even had a Mr. Rogers book about explaining the death of a pet that they let us borrow (I've since returned it). Maybe your vet has something similar.

I really feel for you. I'm so sorry this is happening.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:21 PM on April 1, 2007

When I was about 6, my parents euthanized my hamster. My poor hamster was riddled with cancerous tumours, unable to move and otherwise very ill. They just told me he died. My hamster's death really upset me, but my parents were great about answering my questions, helping me hold a funeral, and so on. I was 17 before I found out that my hamster had not died in his sleep.

At 17, this upset me greatly -- not because they euthanized him, but because they did it themselves. (Humanely -- they drowned him. My parents were from a farming community and this was a common procedure.) But my parents couldn't afford to have the vet do it and it didn't occur to them that vets might do it for free or at a low cost.

So I think it's okay if you have your cat euthanized and just say that she died. If the entire subject of death is new to your child, it may be a bit much to expect your son to digest all the different pieces of the story. If your son asks a lot of questions, you can answer honestly -- I'm not suggesting you lie. But neither do you need to provide more information than is needed at this delicate time.
posted by acoutu at 7:22 PM on April 1, 2007

One thing I would suggest is taking advantage of the fact that this death will be planned. When I was in preschool, one of our older dogs had to be euthanized, so the night before she was to die, my family had a special night to say goodbye to her. My siblings and I each had alone time with the dog, to hug her and pet her as much as we wanted, and when I was with my parents, they gently emphasized how old and sick the dog was, and that she wouldn't be in any pain anymore. My dad also took photos.

Rather than dragging out the pain, I found that night be tremendously helpful to my understanding of death; because we knew it was coming and could say goodbye and deal with those feelings, it acted as a good stepping stone for the (inevitable) unplanned deaths we would later experience. I also enjoy looking back at the photos from that night, and seeing all of that love.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 7:30 PM on April 1, 2007

Many preschoolers are still trying to figure out object permanence - whether or not things still exist when they are not looking at them. They are not thinking about life or death in the way that you and I understand those terms.

I would tell a child that kitty had gone on to a better place, a place where her aches and pains didn't bother her any more. I would point out that it was okay to miss kitty, and definitely okay to remember her, maybe by drawing a picture of her or some other little memorial rituals. Kids understand the meaning of ritual better than most adults these days, I dare say.

I probably would spend a little time inventing pastoral stories about the "place" kitty had gone to, how it had birds to chase and streams to drink from and delicious cat food in abundance. However depending on your religious beliefs this kind of story may not be appropriate.

I do believe that the idea of a different place where there will be no more pain is compatible with nearly any set of religious beliefs about death, including atheism. I have used such explanations at the bedside of dying patients to comfort them, and over the years I have found that they comfort me, too.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:57 PM on April 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

There is a great book for cat owners (and aimed at children, though it's wonderful for adults, too) called "Cat Heaven." There is also a equally wonderful volume called "Dog Heaven."

I don't know if these will help, but they've helped me in the past. I think reading this with your child would help a great deal (note, I have no kids, so I'm making an assumption).
posted by maxwelton at 8:00 PM on April 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Secondng "Cat Heaven" and "Dog Heaven." They've both been a great comfort to me, kids' picturebook and all.
posted by Robert Angelo at 8:32 PM on April 1, 2007

I can remember being on the receiving end of this as a small child (though not pre-school). As Miko suggests, my parents were very literal about what was going on and why, and I was OK with it. In fact, it took a few months for it to really sink in.

On a side note, see if your vet will handle the euthanasia as a house call. Some do. I just went through it, and as hard as it was, it was much better—for the cat and especially for us—than if we had to take the cat to the vet.
posted by adamrice at 8:45 PM on April 1, 2007

I double the idea of a house call.

I had a kitty whose FIV finallly took its toll, the trip to the vet for euthanasia was too late, he died at the vet's but before they could put him to sleep. Besides the obvious sadness for us, I think it also made the vet tech's job tougher from an emotional standpoint that day.

I didn't know that house calls were even possible at the time, but hope to be able to have it be done like that the next (sad) time it may be required.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 9:00 PM on April 1, 2007

How did you find the strength to hold yourself together and not be a soggy weeping mess?

I didn't. I was a soggy weeping mess. So was my husband, and our four-year-old. I think that's okay.

We were honest about the whole thing: our cat was sick, our cat was in pain and didn't like to eat or play any more, and Papa was going to take him to the vet where the vet would give him a drug that would make the cat die. He was an old cat, and we loved him very much, and he'd had a good life, and we would still love him and think about him, and we would be sad for a while. We talked about how doctors don't do that to people.

We had known for a while that our cat was dying, so we'd been talking about it for months (over and over and over -- it's a big deal).

Avoid saying "put to sleep" -- that'll just confuse things.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:36 PM on April 1, 2007

Definately agree with not using euphamisms like "put to sleep", etc. Preschoolers tend to be very literal and this just confuses them.

When our cat died of feline leukemia, my children, ages 2, 5, and 6 at the time, knew he was sick because he wasn't eating and had gotten really skinny and wasn't active anymore. When we got the diagnosis on a Friday, and that it was incurable, I made an appointment for a Monday euthanasia. When I told the children about it, they were very upset, and didn't want me to have him put down. He was only a few years old, and it didn't seem fair to them that he would die. Dying is for the old, right?

He spent the weekend with us at home, unable to stand up, soiling himself, unable to even drink water, but still able to purr when he pet them. Seeing him in such distress, with no hope of recovery quickly led them to see the humanity of putting him down.

I took him on my own on Monday; they didn't want to go, and I respected that. I did take him home so that we could have a burial ceremony, and so that they could see that he was dead, and not suffering anymore, but just gone.

They moved on pretty quickly, and I think, all things considered, it went o.k.
posted by rintj at 9:46 PM on April 1, 2007

Take said child with you when its done. Worked for me. Seriously. But that's not for everyone I understand.
posted by mr_book at 5:42 AM on April 2, 2007

We just had to do this with our daughter's big, beautiful cat- he was five years old, and his heart just started to give out. We had him home over the weekend before we took him to the vet. We explained to her that her kitty was sick and soon he'd have to go, but he was going to stay with us until Monday so she could love him and pet him as much as she could.

We weren't specific about the euthanasia, because I didn't want her to think that people or pets usually go to the doctor when they're sick and never come back, but we were specific that he was going to die and he wouldn't be coming back. If she asked questions, we answered them straightforwardly, no, he's not coming back, no, when he goes away you won't get to see him again- always bolstered with the reassurance that her kitty would love her, no matter where he was.

Mostly, we made it through in shifts. I would explain a little and when I started to lose it, my husband would step in, and vice versa. It's okay to cry with them, just let the person who has it the most together do the talking. I think seeing that we were sad about it too took some of the confusion out of it for her, and made it easier for her to just wallow on her kitty while he was still here.

You sure have my best thoughts and wishes; this is really hard.
posted by headspace at 5:51 AM on April 2, 2007

Before the cat goes to the vet, make sure the child spends time saying goodbye, and being loving. Explain that the pet is very ill, and that the pet will die soon. Up to you if you want to explain that the vet will euthanize the pet.

When my cat was quite ill, we had the appt. at the vet, and I had my 10 yr old son spend time making sure she was comfortable, and petting her, before we left. He was initially squicked out, but rallied, and it was a good experience.

The child may want to know if the sick grandpa, neighbor, etc., is going to die soon, so be sure to make time for questions.
posted by theora55 at 8:27 AM on April 2, 2007

When I was 3, our beloved Golden Retriever died. She died naturally so my parents didn't have to explain much. My mom bought me The Tenth Good Thing About Barney which really helped. I think we probably made our own "top ten" list about Honey too. Also, my dad helped me make a little sign that said "I Love You Honey" that I kept in my room for a long time. He helped me sand and stain the wood and put the letters on (I think we used house number-type letters). That was very therapeutic for me. Also we made a donation to the local humane society and my mom took me there to give the donation, which made me feel really good.

In terms of talking about heaven, that's up to you. I know some people don't believe that animals go to heaven. Recently, my dad told me that I asked him if Honey was going to heaven, and he said "well, actually, I don't know" so he asked the rabbi that visits the hospital where he works. The rabbi said to tell me that "well, we don't actually know, but I believe that our God is a a loving God, and that he provides a happy place for animals in the afterlife."

I honestly think it's good for kids to experience this kind of loss at a young age. Yes, it's very sad, but it gives them an experience with death without it being the death of a human. Let your child know that it's okay to be upset and to talk to you about it. Also let the teachers at school know what's going on in case your kid is "off" for a few days.
posted by radioamy at 10:10 AM on April 2, 2007

Thanks for all the comments and suggestions. Everyone has been so helpful. Miko's comment about learning *how* to grieve is especially helpful to me. I've never been very good at dealing with loss.

Castor went into total organ shutdown this afternoon, and the vet did the only thing that could be done to make her passing as painless as possible.

The Boy and I spent much time petting her and talking about death and what it meant. I think he may be handling this better than I am, to be honest. While we were at the vet's office, Boy looked at the vet and said "Are you going to show Castor where the door to kitty heaven is? Because, she's old and doesn't see very well and I don't want her to get lost on the way."

I'm having her cremated, and Boy and I are building a special place for her ashes to go, somewhere where she can still sit in the sun and watch the ducks.

Thank you all for your help and your stories and your compassion.
posted by dejah420 at 2:42 PM on April 2, 2007

My condolences to you and Boy.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:36 PM on April 2, 2007

Dejah! I am so sad for you.
posted by tizzie at 9:58 AM on April 9, 2007

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