How do you say goodbye to a dear family member?

(the question) How can I explain to my toddler about our pet dog dying?

He is only two and a half, and our dog is sick and may need to be put down soon. What are some ways to explain to someone so young about this? Should I even try, or simply tell him that our dog has gone to live on a farm somewhere?

 

First, I'm so sorry about the loss of your dog.  As you go through this, there are probably some good opportunities to parent. Three rules of thumb:

1) Emotional training is as important as cognitive training. The loss of a loved one is an opportunity to discuss and validate emotions with yourson.  In order to become competent with our emotional selves it helps to have vocabulary and to tie that vocabulary to embodied feelings.  There are many words for types of sad: disappointed, mourning, lonely, heartbroken, remembering, grieving. Exposing a young child to a rich and nuanced vocabulary is good on many levels.

Every individual comes to their emotions down a unique path.  Your son may have an initial reaction (or not) and additional emotional reaction(s) that occur over time. 

Maybe you can mindfully watch your child and expand his emotional vocabulary while you let him know that emotions are ok to just have (they don't need to be fixed), transient ('let's just feel this for a little while and notice what happens') and you also feel these ways sometimes. Sometimes your emotions will be in sync with his, sometimes not.  If you are having an emotional reaction, you don't need to hide it from him.  Instead, you can authentically discuss what is happening and reinforce the three main lessons:

  • emotions have names
  • they are ok to just have
  • emotions are transient and change.

Finally, don't remove all traces of the pet, instead use them to celebrate memories and teach the vocabulary of connection and joy. 

2)  Answer what's asked. Woe to parents who answer 'where do babies come from?' without finding out if the child is wanting a lesson about love, anatomy, or simply how far the hospital is from the house. Answer precisely what your son is asking, in concrete terms, as compassionately as possible.  Before you answer a question it might be a good idea to say "That's an interesting question.  What made you think about it?"

Start with generalizations and continue to details only if he is looking for them.  Stop talking about it as soon as your son gives you a sign he is satisfied. Over time he may ask many follow up questions. You can discuss the dog's death with him as much or as deep as he wants to go. Use simple, non-dramatic language.  For example, if he gets hung up on what happens to the body, you can talk about how we are made from from things from the earth and after we die we go back to being earth bits with names like 'carbon' and 'water'.

If you are religious, the passing of the dog is an opportunity to discuss heaven or valhalla or whatever. It's ok to tell your kid the animal is in that place (even if your religion is skeptical about animals in the afterlife) for the sake of this discussion the dog is a stand-in for any loved one and you can elaborate on the finer points of theology when he is older.  The same is true for atheists - now is not the time to discuss nihilism, instead focus on the fact that the family member is ok now even though they are not with you.

Validate that your child wishes things were different even if it feels like a bit of a loop. 
Child: "I want Tigger to come back."
You: "You wish that Tigger could come back and you feel sad." 
Child:  "Will Tigger come back?" (for the 10th time)
You: "No, what happened means that Tigger is not coming back."
Child: "I want Tigger to come back."
You: "You wish that Tigger could come back and you feel sad." 

Repetition is a child training their brain about how the world works.  Try to be patient.

3) Toddlers are self-centered.  They often identify with pets as siblings or extensions of self.  As you're talking details, remember that your child is applying what you say to themselves.  Be mindful that focusing on death due to being "sick" may cause your child unnecessary worry about if they themselves become sick.  Don't use euphemisms like "went bye-bye and can't come back" or "went to sleep and didn't wake up" for reasons that are obvious, right?

It might be better to focus on the distinction between the dead dog and your son without saying anything about your son.  For example, frame the death with lessons about dogginess rather than health.  i.e., 'Dogs are so special they only live half the time humans do, that's why we love them so much while they are here.

Diane Meriwether

 

dog death 2 from article.PNG