Advice About Telling Son About Heaven

Updated on September 17, 2012
J.W. asks from Kaneohe, HI
12 answers

I find myself having a difficult time explaining Heaven to our 3 year old son. I have pictures of my parents that passed away before he was born, and he knows that they are in heaven, but has begun to ask me questions about where heaven is now that our beloved Golden Retriever has been diagnosed with cancer. Although our dog shows no signs of sickness yet, and is in good spirits, the cancer is so advanced that there isn't any treatment that would save him and he's been given just a few months to live. My son noticed I was crying my eyes out when I got the bad news from our vet, and I calmly tried to explain that our dog is very sick and may go to heaven soon. He said, "he's not sick, he went to the doctor mommy, and he's all better now". My husband and I think it's best not to talk about our dog's sickness or his future absence because our son won't understand, and instead save the talk about where his dog went for when he does pass. I'm not sure I even want to say the word 'cancer' to our son because I don't want him to hear it in the future and immediately think it's a death sentence. Any suggestions on how to best handle the heaven talk or even just the death of a pet talk?

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answers from Raleigh on

I just told my son that when you are born, you are given one "life" battery to live on. When that battery gives out, you die- kind of like toys do. The difference is that each person's inside battery is especially made for them, and can't be replaced with another. So when people/pets die, they can't come back to life or be recharged. We can remember them all the time and we will miss them terribly. We can think about them when we are lonely, and how much we love them, and it helps us to feel better. This explanation seemed to be good enough for my son at that time.
Heaven is very confusing for young kids, so I think it's best to stick with analogies they understand and can relate to.

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answers from St. Louis on

Go with heaven is in your heart. You remember people and dogs, and keep them in your heart. Most kids that age understand memories and good and bad memories.

Focus on that and not cancer, death, dying, doctors because there is no telling what fear that may cause and when he will make you aware of that fear. Like when he screams on his way to the pediatrician that he doesn't want to die of cancer!!!

I feel like anything beyond that is going to have him scratching his head.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Kansas City on

Unfortunately we've had to have a lot of Heaven talk around here lately and here is my honest and up front about everything. I think that you shouldn't be afraid to use the word cancer. Do you have to? No, but if it comes up, then use it. Honestly, it is better to discuss these things now and get your children used to the concepts of Heaven, dying, sickness, cancer, etc. while they are young and still look at things in black and white. Then when they are older and begin to have more questions it will be easier b/c they have background knowledge.

I do think you should probably go ahead and talk about a time when your dog won't be there anymore. I'm assuming they haven't given you much time and you may have to choose about putting him to sleep before he passes on his own (which is a whole other conversation!!) so this is understandably a difficult time for sure...but it's not fair to know that your dog is limited on this earth and then not tell your son and have it be here today and gone tomorrow.

Besides my own personal experiences with my children (who by the way are almost 5 and almost 3) and the death of our family members they understand way more than you think they do, even the little guys. I admit I was a bit shocked with some of the things my son has said in the few weeks since my niece has died. I also teach Sunday school and yes, I agree with 8KidsDad that they pick up so much from not only Sunday school and church, but just open and honest conversations with you.

I will tell you my daughter (almost 5) had a hard time too with the whole doctors not being able to help thing, but that's when I think you should bring up cancer and say that some times it gets better and some times it doesn't. Because that's life. And it's not fair, and it's sad and it really super sucks sometimes, but that is the way it is and I think you should be honest.

Okay, sorry for my long post, this may hit a little close to home! I'm sorry you're going through this and I wish your dog a peaceful journey. Hugs!

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answers from Philadelphia on

simply. exactly what he asks and needs to know and nothing more.

The doggie got sick (he doesnt need to know cancer) and we need to take care of her and enjoy her. We found out she's goig to heaven soon. Grandmom is already waiting for him, she needs a pet up there to hug too.

I'd have him draw some pictures of the pet going to heaven or being with is grandparents possibly so he gets it

ETA I really like the heaven is in you heart like Jo said.
My daughter made up on her own at 3 that the stars and clouds were people that passed and she still at 6 will find a cloud that looks like my dog that passed and say oh thats Randy I miss him and he's following M.

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answers from Atlanta on

He is still so very little, don't expose him to anything you don't absolutely have to. Don't tell him the dog has cancer, just say he is very sick and how much we all love him and such. He's not even going to remember the dog once he gets older, or very little if he does.

Did he ask where your parents are and is that how you told him about heaven? I've told our's about my parents and such and finally one day they asked where they were, but they are 5 and 6. I told them they were in heaven. They said with the angels and I said yes. -- You have to tell him that heaven is the place where he came from - that he crossed over the rainbow bridge to come to earth to mommy and daddy and now the dog will walk the bridge back to heaven. Heaven where the streets are golden and the angels are happy, etc. etc. Have a picture formulated in your own mind about this. He's a baby and needs only simple and vivid, colorful, sweet answers. Keep it short.

Don't say anything till the dog actually does come to his end and then handle it. It's hard I know. The kids lost their dog a few months ago. We told them how terribly sick he was and so old that he couldn't hardly get along so now he can run and play and be happy again, running free in big green meadows.

I'm sorry to hear of your sadness.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Portland on

Hi J.,

We are beginning this journey of losing a pet. Another call from the vet today and it looks like our Gus Cat will not be with us beyond the end of the year. We are talking to our son very simply about this. "Kitty's body is getting old and it isn't working very well any more." As things become more dire, we will focus on being gentle and helping kitty be comfortable, and when/if we have to take him to the vet to be euthanized, we will talk about how Kitty knows he's ready to die and that we will make him comfortable. Our son is five, and we will keep this as simple as possible, but with medicines and repeated vet visits, his decline is going to be hard not to notice.
(Please don't think I'm cold and clinical as I write this... just the thought brings tears...)

Bryan Mellonie has a great book called "Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children" which states :"Every life has a beginning and an end, and there is the living in between." This does not touch on heaven, but does simply, respectfully explain why death happens and how it is a natural part of our life. Even if it hurts.

Cynthia Rylant also has a highly-recommended children's book:"Dog Heaven".

I highly recommend pre-reading both books before introducing, so you can prepare yourself for some follow-up questions if they come up. I also agree with not going into details and naming 'cancer', just as I am not mentioning "kidney failure" to our son. Keep it simple.

J., I'm so sorry. Please let us know how these things go. And remember to get a good picture of your beloved pet with your son and family. It'll be good to later.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Dallas on

What my daughter most understands is that our dog died and has gone to live in Heaven with her grandad. Her grandad takes care of Daisy now, and Daisy isn't sick anymore. We can't see her anymore, but she is happy and safe with granddad. My daughter still grieves for Daisy and wishes she could come back to see us, but she finds comfort that she's in heaven with granddad. SHe's convinced that Daisy keeps Granddad from being lonely for us, too.

Prior to Daisy's passing and afterwards, I reinforced that Daisy was very, very, very old and very, very, very sick and that the vet did everything that he could. Stressing the very, very,very is a good daughter reminds me that her grandma is very old and that I'm old. I can see the wheels turning in her mind that maybe grandma or mom is going to die, so I always say "yes, but we're not very, very, very old and very, very, very sick." It helps her feel more secure.

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answers from Los Angeles on

I would tell him that your dog was loved so much by your parents that he has gone to stay with them.

As far as teaching him about heaven, I would teach him that it is a place where you learn more about Christ and practice being good and helping others. Heaven is fun and there will be lots of kids there to play with your dog.

If you take him to church it will be much easier than if you send him to church. My wife teaches the sunday school class for the 2 & 3 year olds. I am amazed at how much they pick up and learn. If you need a church to go to, PM me and I'll be glad to give some suggestions.

Good luck to you and yours.

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answers from San Francisco on

There is a book I was given - I think it's called "When a Pet Passes" Try googling that.

I definitely would wait on the talk because your son seems to think that because the dog went to the doctor he/she is all better. I would not want to tell him that he's going to die now because you don't want your son to associate the dog's dying with a doctor visit. As it is, your son believes that once you go to the doctor, you get all better. That's the best way for him to think for now.

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answers from New York on

I wouldn't use the word "cancer" because at this age that word has no meaning, nor should it for some time. You should start talking with him about the dog being very sick when it become noticeable that there is something going on. Don't let the dog just "disappear" and try to back track with an explanation- that would be far more upsetting.

"Sometimes when doggies get very sick the doctors can't make them better and their bodies stop working. Your dog was very sick and his body stopped working."

Don't get into the whole Heaven thing... far too abstract for a young child. Stick with the very basic facts. Yes, it will absolutely open up a host of questions, but keep your answers short and non-detailed.

My FIL died when my son was 3 as a result of a car accident. This is how we explained it to him and it helped him to understand that:
1. Death is permanent.
2. Sometimes the body cannot heal, no matter what the doctors do.
3. Death is not something to be fearful of, but it's normal to be sad and miss the person who died.

Good luck. Aside from bringing up cancer, there's very little "wrong" you can do here. Tell him what feels right at the time and go from there.

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answers from Kansas City on

I am so sorry you are going through this. Losing a pet, a family member, is traumatic. I wish you many good days of warm fur and waggy tail.

As non-christians/non-religious people, we don't talk in terms of heaven per se, but when our beloved dog, Tino, passed away from cancer in december 2010, we introduced the concept of "going to the sky" to our almost-3 year old. (We did not address the cat's passing when he was only 1). We didn't want to really go into the whole 'what happens to Tino's body now' thing, especially since we wanted to keep the spirit alive and our son is so literal he would not understand body as an empty vessel.

So very simply, we did tell him that Tino was very sick. Hard to miss as he was going through chemo and had a port on him, we spent time at the animal hospital, son had to be careful around the surgery boo-boos, etc. And we wanted to prepare him to say good-bye, even if the finality of it wasn't going to sink in until later.

We told him that doctors can help many, many things, but sometimes bodies were just too sick or too hurt. When that happens, people and animals go to the sky. There they feel better and are happy. It's a good thing, even though we miss them. They can never return to visit us because then they would go back to being sick and hurt. They stay there forever and we never forget them.

My son's birthday was just a few weeks after Tino officially went to the sky. One of his balloons escaped the house and when he saw it rising up to the clouds, he said is was ok because now Tino would get to see it and smile. My heart was simultaneously filled with joy and sorrow.

Now that my son is 4, he still refers to Tino being in the sky and equates someone being dead with being there. He has more knowledge of the body not literally rising because he has seen Tino's ashes, but still accepts that Tino can be fine there without it. Sometimes he sees a cloud and says that it is Tino. He used to get a little excited that we might see him when we're on an airplane but that has passed.

I found that it was ok to let him see us grieve and let him ask questions. As terrible as it was for us, it has turned into a good starting point on these larger issues of life and death.

The pet-lover's version of going to the sky is crossing the Rainbow Bridge. I love the idea of Tino (and the cat, Timothy, that hated him!) enjoying "life" with treats, frolicks and friends while they wait for me to join them. The poem about it and the visions in my head bring me peace. I hope they can do the same for you.

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answers from Los Angeles on

My beliefs differ a little from most so my dialog is little different. I think our hope is not in death and instant heaven, but in the second coming of Christ and the resurrection. Therefore I don't teach my daughter that dead people are in heaven, I teach her we will be able to see our loved ones one day in heaven. I teach my daughter that death is like sleep. I don't shy away from the topic, I've dealt with every animal death in a straight forward way. I was unsure at the time, but since my cat kept killing things, I kept having to talk with her about it. She gets it and is not frieked. We have also dealt with pet death and human death. Its part of our human reality, fill her in as questions and life lessons arise. Don't keep her in the dark. However, euthanasia may be a little more complex so you may want to deal with that one differently.

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