Saying Goodbye – Explaining the Death of a Pet to a 5-Year Old

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“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened. ” – Anatole France

Today, I had to give the most difficult talk that a parent has to have with their child – explaining death.  My Mom has a dog who is 15-years old and to cut straight to the chase, he does not have much time left.  I have done a lot of research on this subject and spoken with friends and family to get their opinions and so this morning, I felt prepared to have this talk with my kids.

After breakfast, the three of us went into the living room and sat down together.  I proceeded to tell a story (that I made up) about a young boy named Billy, his sister Sarah and their dog named Rover.  I described how they grew up with Rover, their favorite activities, and so on.  I explained how Rover got old and that the parents explained that Rover would someday die and go to Heaven.  The next few days were spent giving Rover extra hugs, extra treats, and saying loving words to him.  One day, they run downstairs to greet Rover…and Rover does not wake up.  They have a memorial service and the siblings experience different emotions at home and at school, but soon are able to remember Rover fondly and with happy hearts.  I honestly got choked up several times during my story!

After it was over, my Daughter says “I sad that Wover is gone.  I play princess now!” then she runs off.  That’s what I expected and I was fine with that.  She is only two after all and I knew she was too young to understand.  Some of you may ask why I bothered to include her in the conversation.  Well in my research, I found several good websites that encouraged being honest with children as young as two.  You don’t have to go into any detail.  Simple, to the point explanations are fine.

Once my Son and I were alone, I noticed he seemed deep in thought.  I encouraged him to ask any questions he may have and he quickly asked “Is Grandma’s dog gonna die?”  I took a deep breath and responded “Yes”.  With that, he burst into tears and ran to me for a hug.  At that moment, I cried too and wondered if I had done the right thing.  Then I remembered what many websites and people had recommended – when possible, preparing for an eventual death helps to make things easier.  The opportunity to say goodbye and to give final hugs can give a sense of peace when the death finally occurs.

After a couple of minutes, my Son calmed down and asked when Grandma’s dog would die.  I explained that nobody knows when a pet will die, only God knows that.  Next he asked how long the dog would be dead.  Once again, I swallowed down the large lump in my throat and told him that once a pet dies, they stay dead forever.  They do not come back, and we cannot see them anymore because he will be in Heaven.  He actually asked this question several times over the following half hour and I gave the exact same answer each time.  Shortly afterwards, my Daughter (who had been modeling her princess outfits to us during our talk) says “It’s ok, Grandma’s puppy will have Angel wings and will fly!”  That happy thought ended our conversation.

There are many books out there which deal with the death of a family pet, however there were several which went into too much detail or would make the situation more complicated (ie – a parent trying to replace a deceased pet with another to fool the child).  I didn’t want to touch on things such as burial, funerals or what happens to the body after death, so that’s what prompted me to tell my own story.  It allowed me to include the elements that I felt were important and keep the story relatable to them (ie – brother/sister, old dog, reference to God, etcetc).

How you explain the end of a pet’s life to your child is completely up to you of course.  No matter how you explain things, the conversation will no doubt be difficult.  As long as you are there to support your child and help them tend to their grief, they will be just fine.

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