March 26, 2009,
J.C. asks from Swampscott, MA on March 23, 2009
How Do You Explain the Death of a Pet to a Toddler?
I've written before and gotten wonderful answers/advice/help from everyone - thank you all so much. My question today is: how do you explain the death of a pet to a toddler? It hasn't happened yet, but here's what happened today. My son (2 years 2 months old) and I were having a snack this afternoon when our cat came out from under the couch and stumbled across the room, falling down with every step, looking very disoriented and meowing. My son freaked out - he loves this cat so much and it was so distressing to see her like that. I immediately called the vet and brought her over. My sister was here and stayed with my son who was very upset. The vet said she has a type of severe vertigo that is usually caused by ear infection (he doesn't think that's it), a brain signal malfunction, a mini-stroke or a tumor. He said the only thing we can do is give her supportive care and wait to see if she improves or not. I brought her home and had my son help set up a litle bed for her in the bedroom, give her a bowl of water and some food and kept telling him that Shwizzle needed to rest. He kept patting her and saying "I love you, Meow". I'm praying this all passes and she'll be fine, but if we have to make the tough call, how do I explain it to him? I mean, he lost a puzzle piece months ago that he still asks for every night! I can't imagine him understanding this and am not looking forward to the constant "where are you, Meow?". Any adivce will be appreciated. I was really hoping we wouldn't have to deal with the topic of death for a while, but I need to be prepared so I can help him.
N.S. answers from Hartford on March 26, 2009
My children were 2, 4 and 6 when they actually watched our dog pass away (she was hit by a car after jumping out of our car window unexpectedly). Although they did not see the collision with the dog and car they did see me pick the dog up and hold her as she slipped away...We had no time to plan or prepare for this and I was in shock myself but since the dog appeared to have had a neck or spinal injury (she just looked like she was sleeping no blood or anything) I did allow each of the children to say good bye to her and pet her and even give her a kiss. I explained that she had gone to a happy place where she did not hurt or feel pain anymore. We cried together and they do still ask about her and they like to see pictures of her from time to time. A few months later we were able to adopt another dog so they are doing fine. I think letting them say thier own good byes and talking fondly about the animal helps a lot as well as pictures with them and the animal.
K.C. answers from Boston on March 25, 2009
Sorry to hear about your cat. It's so hard to have to deal with illness/death in a pet from your own perspective, let alone explain it to a child. I would look into the book "Cat Heaven" by Cynthia Rylant. It may be a little beyond what you're looking for, but it might help. Good luck.
D.F. answers from Boston on March 23, 2009
He is so young, is it possible you can take your sons photo with the kitty. Then when the time comes (if it comes) to take your kitty to the vet again. I would tell him because he is so young that your kitty is in the Hospital, even if you have put her to sleep already. And keep the photo of your son and his kitty on his table. If he keeps asking I would try to say how sick your kitty is, she is in heaven looking down watching him grow up into a wonderful little boy. Are you planning on a new kitten? This can help your little boy love another kitten. Hope this helps just a little.
J.A. answers from Boston on March 24, 2009
You are right in saying he is too young to really comprehend. The one thing I am sure of is be very careful about using eupemism's such as we put Schwizzle to "sleep". It is best to simple say Schwizzle is getting very old and her body is wearing out, we hope she will get better, but she might die. This is an opportunity to explain that every living thing has a life cycle. Do this as simple as possible and don't elaborate unless he asks. If you must choose to euthanize, Simply tell your son Schwizzle died and we are going to miss her alot.
Believe me, your son will get over this long before you do. Give only as much information as he seeks and try to be matter of fact about it. Attaching too much emotion may frighten your little one. If you are a family of faith, it is important to discuss death in the relationship of God and eternal life.
S.M. answers from Portland on March 24, 2009
These two things helped me when I was in a similar situation -
http://www.babyzone.com/toddler_preschooler_development/t... and the book titled, "when Your Pet Dies".
The biggest thing that helped us was to remember that youngsters look to us, to see how we are feeling and reacting. Treating death as a natural but sad occurrence has helped us with our son.
Best wishes and I hope your cat gets better and you wont need this information for a long time!
B.L. answers from Springfield on March 24, 2009
Wow..nothing is tuffer than telling a little one their animal has gone to heaven. Been there ...but you have to be honest..and tell him the truth..what ever you do ..do not..I repeat ..do not lie to him about it..they dont forget that stuff..even at 2 and 3 years old.
Just be honest and tell him he went to kitty heaven. dieing is a fact of life that he needs to aware of..and telling him the truth maybe painful ..but it's the best way to deal with it, that way death wont be so much of a shock to him when he gets older. More than likely he wont really understand it all, but knowing his kitty is playing with all his friends in Heaven..is alot easier than just not knowing or understanding a lie when the Cat disappears.
If possible get him another kitten right away..it will never take the place of the one he loves so much but it will help him heal quicker.
I have to tell you..when our dog died..it had to be one of the hardest things to deal with in the whole world..like losing a family member..but honesty is always the best policy as they say.
Make sure if you have a house you bury him in the back yard..and get a head stone..if you dont have a back yard and you have a friend that does..try to put him there..it will give him some kind of peace knowing he is close by. ours is in our back yard..
I wish your kitty good health and hope he gets better..
And I also wish you good luck.
R.K. answers from Springfield on March 24, 2009
Explain to him how sick the cat is and death to him has others have said the kitty went to kitty heaven and isn't in pain anymore and is looking down on you all the time. Perhaps going to the shelter and picking out a new "meow" will help him to get his mind off it when that time comes or even getting one now so he won't be bothering your sick cat.
R.F. answers from Boston on March 24, 2009
my son was about 4 1/2 when our cat got really sick and died at the vet while they were looking her over. he was very upset that he did not get to say bye to her and at 5 1/2 still says he misses her and wishes she hadn't died. best thing is be honest like everyone else has said. never say "put to sleep" as the child will think he will die if he goes to sleep and you will have many sleepless nights. we told our son that the cat was really sick and there was no medicine that the doctor could give her that would make her better (this had a good effect in that when he gets sick and needs to take medicine & I tell him it will make him better he takes it without complaint) and then we told him the cat died and it is ok to be sad, I explained death as we won't be able to pet her or see her anymore but we can always think about & talk about her because we love her. he was happy with that. we had another cat already and waited about a year to get a kitten so it would not feel like a replacement of the cat we lost. I hope your cat gets better and you do not have to go thru this at such a young age.
J.P. answers from Boston on March 24, 2009
I'm sorry your kitty isn't feeling well. You have already received some sensitive advice. I just wanted to share a few book titles that we found helpful:
When a Pet Dies, Fred Rogers
Lifetimes, Bryan Mellonie and Robert Igpen
Cat Heaven, Cynthia Rylant
Libraians and book store staff may also be of help.
We had time to read these books with my daughter before our cat died and they helped discuss the cat's passing. She asked about the cat for a while, but really was looking to confirm what she understood. She still asks to read them periodically.
L.L. answers from Portland on March 24, 2009
This is not as large a problem as you imagine.
It is good that the child is helping to take care of her during her sickness and seeing for himself that something is amiss with her.
Makes it all a bit easier.
You do not say how old the cat is..easier if pets are aged but still, she is ill.
You need to be honest, you need to explain that animals, like people, sometimes become ill and cannot be fixed.
Their bodies die. Then they go to heaven to be with Jesus and they will not hurt any longer.
Simple as that.
And keep it simple. No elaborations.
He will probably state many times that Meow is in heaven with Jesus. That she was sick and her body wore out from the sickness.
My cat had to be put down last year...she was nearly 19 but she had been quite sick for a time. My three year old grandson misses her very much, he really loved Ebo.
We got a kitten about a month before Ebo passed and that helped with the transition. ( you may want to consider that option if Meow's death is inevitable.)
He loves Abner but he still talks of Ebo now and again.
Children are pretty flexible and adaptable if you help them understand what is going on.
It is what is NOT explained and what they do NOT know that upsets them.
Just be honest and straightforward about the situation. Dont try to candy coat it or make up untrue stories.
The cat is sick, she may not live, ok, her body died. She is in heaven now and not sick any longer.
End of story.
Best wishes and God bless
V.L. answers from Boston on March 24, 2009
I feel the most important thing is to be as simple and direct as you can. This cat is acting strangely because some of his parts aren't working right now. The vet might be able to fix him, but sometimes things can't be fixed. Compare to a toy, an ant, or other small creature. Our cat began acting strangely for a couple of years before dying. We explained his behavior in terms of how well his body parts worked when he was sick. We also supposed that he was not very happy when he felt so sick. This is not a comprehensive solution, but a few suggestions--and is not to say that we didn't have cuddle time while explaining.
B.T. answers from Springfield on March 24, 2009
Hello. This is a hard one but i have been there. I dont know if you belive in god or teach your child about god.but what we did was talk about "great gramma in heaven" really wanting a pet, and we think god wants to give "gramma" fluffy. And how great of a thing this is. It may sound crazy but our child ate it up. Good luck
J.L. answers from Providence on March 24, 2009
First off, I am so sorry about your cat. I agree with everyone about being honest. I wouldn't say the words "put to sleep" as it may make him fear dying in his sleep. Is there a ritual that you would do with the cat that he is going to miss? When my friend's cat passed away, her toddler missed giving her treats. So they went outside and she threw treats in the air for the cat to eat in heaven. It only lasted about a week. She also scattered the ashes outside under a tree. Her daughter goes out there sometimes to talk with her cat. Maybe get a stuffed animal cat if he likes brushing the cat or having it sit next to him if you aren't up for getting a new one soon. Good luck. Pets are such a part of a family and kids know it. Again, I am sorry you are going through this.
J.E. answers from Boston on March 24, 2009
I went through the same thing with my daughter when she was two..our dog got very sick and in the end we had to put her to sleep(I hope you do not have to do this and your cat gets better) but my advice is to be as honest as you can but also try to explain it in a way he will understand. If you do have to put the cat to sleep dont tell him in those words because it may make him fearful of sleeping. That was some advise that I got.. I just explained that the dog was very sick and she was in a lot of pain but is now in heaven an feeling so much better. of course you can adjust this to your own beliefs. a little less then a year later we had to then explain to her that her grandmother past away so it is very hard but she seemed to understand for the most part. A lot of questions but you have to try to answer them the best way he will understand and as trueful as possible. I did have to explain it a few times to her and she did get upset sometimes but I told her it was okay to be sad but to remember that now Sadie (the dog) feels better. They do have some books that you can buy to0 that will help you explain or looking online can help, I did that too. I hope this helps!
M.A. answers from Boston on March 24, 2009
Some people may not agree with this, but our dog was very sick and my son (who was 3 at the time) knew this. After a lot of money and tests, we had to put him down. We told our son that Sammy was too sick and we could no longer take care of him. We told him he had to go to a farm with all the other old and sick dogs whose owners could no longer take care of them. We told him he was going back to his mommy and daddy (not entirely a lie) and they would take care of him better than we could. I think it eased the pain at the time that Sammy was gone and now that he is 5, he has figured it out. He has told me, "I know Sammy is dead" but I like to think he's on the farm.
Life can be so hard, I think its our job to protect our kids as long as we can and I think that when my son was able to deal with it, he did on his own terms.
E.M. answers from Boston on March 24, 2009
how old is your cat? I am a veterinarian so I just wanted to write in and say that while I can't say for certain without examining your cat of course that there is a significant chance that your cat could get better. Sometimes they have these "vestibular episodes" for reasons we can't explain and they get better with time. You just need to make sure the cat can eat and stays hydrated. Of course it could be an ear infection (which would respond to antibiotics although the cat could need surgery) or a brain tumor as well. Sometimes they also have strokes but can often recover, at least initially.
Good luck with your cat, I hope it goes ok. I think it is ok for young children to know that animals get sick too, it helps them learn coping skills.