L.O. asks from Sterling Heights, MI on November 29, 2010
How to Explain Dog Dying to Preschoolers. (Bieng Put to Sleep)
Our 13 year old dog is quite sick.. I think it is time for her togo to dog heaven. My kids are 3 and 5. Does anyone have any good words that I could use to explain this to them? I think "put to sleep" might scare them and they might not want to go to sleep.
Thanks for your help duing this difficult time.
D.B. answers from Boston on November 29, 2010
I'm so sorry you are going through this. We had a similar situation last spring - our dog was just shy of 14.
You are ABSOLUTELY RIGHT not to use the term "put to sleep". I don't use it at all, even when talking to adults - I think we need to get rid of that phrase entirely for just the reason you mention. Same thing with "put him down" - then kids want to be carried all the time.
I think you can say "went to heaven" if that is the religious belief you share with your children. I think you also need to begin preparing them by saying the dog is very sick, she is in pain, she cannot do this or that. The phrase I hear a lot of people use is that the vet helped the dog to not have any more pain, that it was time for her to die and the vet helped her do it gently so it didn't hurt and so she was comfortable. Make it clear that the vet isn't causing the death - that nature is, or God, whatever your belief. It's important that kids not associate vets with death, that vets be helpers of animals, people who love animals. Same thing with God - we don't want our children thinking that God is coming after them with the capacity to make them die. It's more important to talk about life being a journey, and that the dog lived and good and full life with lots of love. In fact, that's what comforts ME.
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S.A. answers from Kalamazoo on November 30, 2010
First of all, I'm sorry for your loss.
We recently had our dog put down as well, just before my oldest's third birthday. We had some time to prepare him for Jewel's death. We told him that Jewel was really sick and hurting, that he needed to be extra gentle with her. As the time approached, we started telling him that Jewel was dying and that when she died, she would not live with us anymore. We also told him that when something dies, it stops moving, it can't hear or see anymore. And that when Jewel died she wouldn't have any pain or hurt anymore. We did let him say goodbye and I took the boys out for the day before my husband took our dog to the vet. I wasn't sure if they would associate daddy taking Jewel to die.
The hardest part for me was watching my son explain to his friends what happened when they asked where Jewel was. He was so grown-up sounding. Much harder on us than them!
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S.B. answers from Kansas City on November 29, 2010
I agree that you might not need to go into 'how' she died.
My son's best friend died when he was 3. His only introduction to death up to that point was a lady bug he squashed and then asked me to put back together again and then cried for days because I couldn't, so I was very concerned about his reaction.
I think for him it helped that I gave him a few days to get used to the idea. I explained that Maggie had a doggie sickness that was making her feel very tired and that was why she couldn't play ball anymore and maybe soon she might need to go away to a place where she would feel better but couldn't come back and see us any more.
She died before we made it to the vet. I have a great picture of Evan and her. She was lying in the sun on the grass and Evan went over and put his beloved blanket on her and lay next to her, then gave her a hug. She died that night.
For several weeks after that he would come up to me every once in a while and say that he missed Maggie and wanted her back and I would reassure him that I did too, but she was happy not being tired anymore but she couldn't come back to us.
A couple of months later we went to the shelter and I explained that these dogs didn't have homes and Maggie would like him to give one a home since she couldn't play with him anymore. Of course the first time Poncho chewed up one of his toys he asked if Poncho could go live with Maggie and we could get another dog. So I can't say I explained everything very well :)
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B. answers from Augusta on November 29, 2010
we just put our dog to sleep in September we told our kids the truth.
our kids were 5 and 8.5 ,
We told them that Ty was very sick and in a lot of pain, and we were going to have to take him to the vet and he was going to get a shot that would make him go to sleep and never wake up , and that he would die in his sleep. He was going to go be with their grandparents dog that died last year and their great grandparents that had already passed on. That he would have lots of sheep to play with and herd ( he was a herding dog). They were ok with it, they did much better than I did with it. For the next month they made little beds in their rooms in case his angel needed a place to sleep while he was watching over them ( their own idea and words).
I am sorry you are going through this, our beloved Ty was only 8 when he was diagnosed with chronic kidney failure at 25% function a week later he was gone.
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K.U. answers from Detroit on November 29, 2010
I am a veterinarian and I LOVE LOVE LOVE Diane B.'s and Lee P.'s responses! To them I would just add (and agree) that at their ages, euthanizing an animal might be beyond their comprehension, as far as understand why it is a good thing. It can be difficult enough for them to deal with their beloved pet being gone, without adding the whole element of "The veterinarian gave her a shot that helped her to die..." or whatever. You don't want them hating or being afraid of the vet for "killing" their dog or taking her away. Or upset at you for allowing it to happen. And you don't want them to be afraid of falling asleep, or to be afraid of any shots that they get thinking the same thing might happen to them. Or thinking that the pet being "put to sleep" means they will wake up again at some point. It's different when your kids are older - at 7 and 8 my stepsons asked me about my job and if I had to "put animals to sleep" as part of it, and I said yes, but it was a good thing, because these pets were already sick and in pain and it was not right to allow them to suffer if we could not help them feel any better. And they seemed to understand that and be okay with it.
I would just prep them with the fact that she is very old and very sick, and often when animals are very old and very sick, they might die because their bodies just can't work anymore. If you have any belief system about where we go after we die, you can let them know that the same thing happens to our pets, so they will be in a wonderful place where they won't be sick or in pain anymore and they will be well taken care of (I once had a client who was really struggling with the fact that his 16 year old cat was dying of kidney failure and he couldn't face the idea of euthanasia, because he was Catholic - and they were taught that animals did not have souls and therefore did not go to Heaven afterwords and it troubled him deeply to think that his beloved cat would not be in Heaven in some way. I told him I did NOT believe that, and as far as I was concerned, he could believe whatever he wanted - that seemed to help him.) If you can, I would just have it done while someone else is watching them and they are out of the house and then when you see them, you can just tell them about the dog.
There are some really great kids books out there that deal with losing a pet, including one called "Dog Heaven" (whose author I can't recall - sorry.) There is a story about "Cat Heaven" as well. You can also try to come up with some ways that they can remember their dog, like making a scrapbook or planting a tree in their memory. Some vet hospitals will also make ink or clay paw prints for you of your pet as a keepsake as well.
Good luck with everything, I am very sorry that you have to deal with this right now and for your loss...
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A.C. answers from Detroit on November 29, 2010
We didn't tell our daughter we were putting the dog to sleep. We just told her that Charley was very old, that his body wasn't working very well anymore, and he was ready to die and go to heaven. Then we told her we were taking him to the vet because the vet would help him while he was dying. She drew him a picture to take with him and told us to give him his pig to take to heaven with him too. She was sad, but she handled it quite well (much better than I did).
I'm sorry for you and your family. It's so hard, especially having to make that decision.
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E.F. answers from Detroit on November 30, 2010
Condolences to your family. I volunteered in a grief center for children, and I will share with you the most important ideas here. First of all, use words like "died", "death", and those hard hitters. Do not say that the dog went to a long sleep or "passed". That makes no sense to a kid and scares children about sleep. Secondly, when talking about why things die, there are three reasons: the dog (or person) was very, very, very sick; very, very, very old; or very, very, very hurt. Yes, it is necessary to use "very, very, very" with that or the child will freak any time someone is sick, hurt, or getting older. Please be as honest as you can in an age appropriate manner. You don't need to say the dog had to be killed, but you can say that the dog is very, very, very sick and the doctor could not keep the dog alive anymore. If your beliefs include heaven as you have indicated, talk about that and give comfort to your child explaining that the dog is no longer sick or in pain, and now the dog is free to be happy with God in heaven. It is always painful to deal with subjects such as this, but even a three year old gets it more than you may realize. Some of the most profound statements and observations I have heard regarding death have come from 3 and 4 year olds. The reason we don' t think they do is because we shield them from this sort of thing, and that is even more scary for a child. I always encourage others to include children in funerals if the child wants to be included. Death is a part of life, and the more open and honest we are, the less scary it becomes for a child. Good luck.
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J.W. answers from Detroit on November 30, 2010
We just told our son that she was going to die. He didn't really question "how". We took him to the vet with us but he and I left the room when the injection took place. He then got to go back in for some closure and to say goodbye. He kept part of her blanket as well. I also told him the even though she is gone we canALWAYS feel her love in our hearts. We did make sure we took some " family pictures" in the yard with her and he keeps a picture of the two of them together in his room. He still gets sad of course, but that is what seemed to help him. I think he also knew how sick/ old she was so it helped because he noticed the change in her.