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How to Explain Death to a Child: Explaining the Death of a Pet to a Child

I have experienced many deaths in my life from all different dynamics of relationships, starting at a very young age. You can’t always anticipate death or how you will respond and cope with it. Bowie, a Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier, was mid-size, followed me everywhere throughout my house, was a great companion, and loved so very much. He loved my young children as much as he loved me, if not more. After 11 and a half years, Bowie’s cancer took over, and he is now at peace. Saying that is so hard and yet such a difficult saying for people based on their own experiences. How we view death, what we believe happens after, religion, spirituality, and experiences all play into how it’s stated and our outlook.

The hardest part of death is life after the loss and coping with it. A loss is a loss. We can anticipate it, but it doesn’t make things better. I always assumed when Bowie passed, I would be okay. He was my pet. But he was so much more than that, and how he was with my children was incredible and made this process so much more heartbreaking. There is a loneliness that I can explain, but no one can truly understand it unless they have experienced it themselves. It’s a loneliness of not being greeted at the door by him, not being followed throughout my house, waking up and not having to be careful not to step on him because of where he is lying on the side of my bed, realizing how messy my three and five-year-old are when they eat, as I am now picking up the crumbs, feeling like it’s quiet in the house even when it’s noisy, and so many more moments when I feel his absence at almost everything I am doing in my house, I can feel he’s gone. So while I’m grieving and triggered with constant reminders, my children throw a million questions and statements that make the grieving process so much harder.

Almost nine years ago, I lost my Jack Russell Terrier. At that time, a wonderful family member gave me a book that is so perfect yet challenging to read when grieving. The book is called Dog Heaven” by Cynthia Rylant. This book is a whimsical description of death, from fields where dogs can run to delicious biscuits and just to be happy. I have used this book to illustrate to my young toddlers what death and heaven are like. I have expressed that Bowie is healthy in heaven and doesn’t need his medicine anymore. I explained that we could talk to him whenever we wanted and look at his pictures and videos. Some tough questions were asked, so I will share some painstaking questions that have been shot my way and how I addressed them.

“Mommy, when I get sick, will I go to the hospital and go to heaven?”

The mom in me wanted to shout, “NO! I will never let that happen to you.” The truth is, there is truth to her question. People always get sick, hurt, or whatever else; ultimately, we all die. The true question is when, which we will never know. So instead, I paused and responded with, “Not everyone dies if they have gone to the hospital. People and animals go to the hospital so the doctors can help them to get better, but sometimes they don’t get better, and heaven needs them. But I will do everything I can to keep you healthy so you can live a long life.” How can I not cry over this? Am I right? When they say parenting isn’t easy, there are easy moments and some hard, raw moments. I don’t want my five-year-old to fear hospitals, and it’s important she understands what a loss is.

"How did Bowie wrap the present?"

Our amazing neighbors sent a ginormous package days after Bowie died. The letter brought me to tears. It was a picture of my children with our Bowie, and the letter was directed to them and signed by him. In summary, he had to go on a new adventure but will be watching them, and he sent a friend so they can think of him when they play with their new friend. Reading this, I knew it couldn’t be another dog, and thank goodness it wasn’t because I was not ready for that. Honestly, the letter was leading me on a bit, but we were in the clear, and instead, it was a HUGE unicorn.

I don't mean like a 12-inch doll. I mean, it was like my kids could ride on it if it stayed up for that (it’s not that sturdy). Instead, they can put their toys on it to ride. They absolutely love it and tell any guest in the house about it. Later that evening, my five-year-old was relaxed and asked how Bowie wrapped it. I wanted to laugh but knew she was serious. So, I asked her, “How do you think he wrapped it?” She demonstrated with her mouth and said, “Did he put it in his mouth and put it in the box and close it?” I responded with “yeah.” She thought I was kidding, but I ran with it, and it worked. She believed me! It’s not that I want to lie to my child, but we, as parents, need to from time to time, let’s be honest. If my child lives in a magical world where she believes our dog loved her so much to send her something from heaven and made sure it was wrapped, who am I to change her perspective? I’m sure my husband thought I was nuts when I told him about this conversation. However, it’s like the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus… the magic is in believing.

"Can I go to heaven and be with Bowie?"

Heaven can be a fantasy of a place where one's imagination can go. A young child may envision a happy place to see people from our past without understanding the permanency of it. I'm not sure at what point they realize how serious and scary a statement like that is. I had to reassure her that we won't be able to see Bowie physically, but we could look at pictures and videos and talk about him, especially when we miss him.

"Mommy, I am sad. I miss Bowie. Are you sad too?"

I explained to my daughter that I was so sad. She needs to understand that we experience every emotion throughout life and our experiences, and grieving coincides with being sad. It’s healthy and normal to feel that way. I am not going to mask my feelings and thoughts because it should be normalized for her that it is okay to feel however she is feeling.

"Why didn’t you tell me Bowie was going to die?”

I had to tell her the truth at that moment. “Honey, I didn’t know he was going to die then. We don’t know when someone is going to die. No one tells us when.” I explained that he was sick but that we didn’t know when it would happen. This has not been an easy process. I try to be real and raw when I talk to my children. I try to be the best parent at the moment. I will fail at times, I’m sure. I’m not sure if I should have talked more about death with my kids or not. I don’t think it would have helped more as they don’t have a sense of time yet and we did have four additional months with him, from his first crashing of his illness and he seemed stable.

Believe me when I say my child has probably asked at least one hundred more questions related to this. It’s hard. I have to think quickly and at times, pause to respond in a way that is most helpful to her. I also need to have some thick skin because five-year-olds can be brutally honest with no filter so you don’t always know what she’s going to say next. I recognize while I am grieving, so is she. What I say and how I respond will help shape how she views loss. It’s a fragile time with her development and connecting the dots.

Losing a loved one is hard, explaining it to your children is hard, and life in general is hard. Be there to support each other, comfort each other, and let your loved ones know they are loved. Death is not easy at any age and it’s important you take the time to think about it and your experiences as they can leave a lasting impression on others.

If you are struggling with grief and loss, it's important to know that you don't have to go through this alone. It can be helpful to seek the support of a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor, who can provide you with a safe and non-judgmental space to talk about your feelings and help you process what you are going through. They can also offer coping strategies and tools to help you manage your grief in a healthy way. Don't hesitate to reach out for help if you need it.


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