Dear Attachment Parent: Our family dog just died and I don’t know what to say to my 4 year old. How do I explain this?
Losing a four-legged family member can be heartbreaking. While we are coping with our own sadness, we parents also have to figure out how to help our kids navigate sadness, possible confusion, and questions about life and death. The big questions.
For most human existence, we were surrounded by birth and death. Today we are mostly shielded from it. Many of us never witness a birth aside from the births of our own children, and if we are lucky, we only witness the death of a loved one as a peaceful process at the end of a long, well-lived life. Although we are lucky to live in an age in which death is an infrequent part of life, there are also some downsides in that we do not learn to cope with it until it hits us hard. Having family pets can change this.
As sad as it is to lose a pet, it can be helpful to recognize that death is a natural part of life. Having a pet can help kids learn and begin to cope with this fact. Therefore, it’s important to provide a brief explanation, answer their questions honestly, provide time and space for them to express their emotions, and keep an open dialogue.
Provide a brief explanation of what death means
When our dog died of cancer at nine years old, it was a natural death overnight. I was there with him, but both of my daughters were sleeping. In the morning, they saw his body. I explained that he had died. This meant that even though his body was still there, it didn’t work anymore. He couldn’t run, jump, eat, play, or do any of the things that living creatures can do. My older daughter, then 4, wanted to know if he was ok. I reassured her that he is ok and not hurt or sad. Depending on your beliefs, you can share what you believe happens after bodies and souls leave this life.
It is important to avoid euphemisms like, “he went to sleep.” Young children do not understand euphemisms and are unlikely to comprehend that when you say “sleep” you actually mean “death.” Confusing the two may make them afraid of going to sleep.
Answer their questions simply and honestly
Questions may continue for several weeks or more as kids process the events. You may find that they ask the same questions again and again, or that they come up with new questions. My daughter had a few questions on the morning of our dog’s death, but the majority of them poured out in the weeks and months to follow.
Let them express their emotions and see you express yours
We parents often feel that we need to be strong and stoic for our kids so we don’t scare them with our emotions. It’s true that kids are naturally concerned when they see a parent crying, but it’s important to set an example for them that it’s ok to cry. Crying is a healthy expression of emotion. If our kids never see us cry, they may get the message that we should hide our emotions or the things we are upset about. Letting kids know that you are sad also helps them feel less alone. Grieving together is better than grieving alone.
Keep an open dialogue
Understanding and coming to terms with something as profound as death is a lifelong process. You may find that the big questions come out at bedtime, when kids (and adults) tend to be most likely to reflect and be philosophical. Answer the question they are asking for the eighteenth time as if it were the first time. Take advantage of those moments to show that you are always there for them to answer their most important questions. Even if they fall asleep 20 minutes later today, it will pay off in the teenage years. Kids will ask a lot of tough questions over the years. Giving the perfect answer each time is not necessary, but showing a willingness to engage with these questions head on instead of shying away from them will provide the model your kids need to confront life’s difficult situations.
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