Explaining the death of a pet to toddlers

This week, my trio of three year olds had their first experience with death. Our dog, Buddy, had been treated for heart failure for several months and we knew it was only a matter of time before the good days started being outnumbered by the bad. The knowledge that we would have to make the decision to end his suffering had been looming over our heads and our sadness at losing a dear pet was compounded with the magnitude of helping these little people understand and deal with the loss also.

We’re not a particularly religious family, though I do believe the idea of heaven is a great comfort for children when dealing with grief. We started talking about “The Rainbow Bridge” a few months ago and the fact that when the vet couldn’t make Buddy feel better anymore, she would send him there so he wouldn’t feel sick any more. We explained that once he went to the Rainbow Bridge, he wouldn’t be able to come back. It was evident that this was a tough concept for them to grasp and a lot of discussion ensued about death, to the point where I wondered if we had created some level of anxiety as they were asking about it constantly. We chatted with the kids’ preschool teachers about it so they were prepared for any questions about death and understood where they were stemming from.

Their fixation on death settled down after a month or so and the focus shifted to the Rainbow Bridge itself. I found some lovely images on Google of artists’ impressions for them, which they seemed to really enjoy talking about. As Buddy’s health declined, we reminded them about being extra gentle with him during play because he was old and sick.

This week we had to make the heartbreaking decision we knew was coming. We sat the kids down and explained to them that the following day, Buddy would be going to the Rainbow Bridge and that he wouldn’t be coming back. Their reactions were varied and had distinct impacts on me:

Mr B was sad that he wouldn’t have Buddy anymore, but seemed much more focused on the fact that we could always get another dog after Buddy was gone. His comments upset me a little although I know it was just a three year olds’ way of processing the situation and I calmly explained that we would get another dog, but not straight away.

Miss E was absolutely shattered. She sobbed in a way I have never seen before and kept telling me how much she would miss Buddy and how he would miss us all too. She needed a great deal of consoling and completely broke my heart.

Miss J seemed to feed off her sisters’ grief and would become upset whenever Miss E cried. When speaking to her separately she enjoyed talking in detail about Buddy being in the clouds and what he would be doing up there.

Kids have a beautiful way of providing comic relief in the most serious of situations. As they knelt down around Buddy and gave him hugs and kisses, bidding him goodbye, my son loudly exclaimed, “Buddy has a red penis!” Needless to say, we were able to have a laugh amidst the tears.

It’s been four days and while I am still quite emotional (dissolving in to tears when I rang to cancel Buddy’s health insurance policy today), the kids seem to be coping well. There haven’t been any tears since they said goodbye, and instead they have talked about Buddy watching over us from the clouds and how he is playing with all the other doggies up there.

Buddy was a fabulous dog with our kids.
Buddy was a fabulous dog with our kids.

Some things that I think worked well for us in explaining the death of a pet to our children include:

– Being honest about death. While the notion of the Rainbow Bridge might add a little creative license, we were straight up with them about the finality of death. We told them from the start that when Buddy was too sick for the vet to make better, he would close his eyes and the vet would help him die so he wouldn’t feel sick any more. We explained only Buddy could see the Rainbow Bridge and that he couldn’t come back after he died and we couldn’t go see him. We talked about visiting him in our dreams and thinking about all the happy times we had with him. The initial fixation on death freaked me out a little to be honest, but we just tried to answer their questions as honestly as possible. Sometimes when people get really sick, they die…and yes, everyone dies eventually.

– Ease the anxiety about their own mortality. We avoided using phrases like “went to sleep and died” or “put to sleep” as we didn’t want them to have any fears related to bed time. My son asked if kids die – I answered him “Sometimes, but hardly ever. Most of the time people live until they are very old.”

– Share your own feelings. We explained to them that it was okay to feel sad about losing Buddy and to miss him and that we were feeling upset too. I let them see me cry, but I tried to keep my biggest tears out of sight as I didn’t want them to get distressed by my own grief.

We will get another dog some time down the track. Buddy was a wonderful first pet for our trio and taught them so much about how to treat and respect dogs, earning their trust and affection. He left big shoes to fill and I look forward to the day when I hear squeals of delight coming from the backyard again as they get licked behind the ears.

Oh, and I’m totally going to get us one of these…

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