In the United States there are almost 400 million pets, many of whom become an integral part of our family. Our kids love them. Guys, you could fall down a days-long YouTube black hole watching adorable videos of kids with pets. But unless you have a particular breed of long-lived turtle, pet ownership comes with the knowledge that you're almost certainly going to outlive your animal friend, leaving you in the position of explaining the death of a pet to a child. I asked some other moms how they managed, because these conversations are tough and we could probably all use some insight.
Like many couples, my husband and I had a pet before we had children. In our case we had Pigeon, a cat of indeterminate age whom we had adopted after his owners callously and irresponsibly abandoned him on the streets of New York when they moved. Pigeon was a bit of a bastard, but we loved him and so, too, did our children (the cat graciously tolerated them). But over the years, our kitty son developed a kidney issue that would have required extensive an uncomfortable treatments and we made the decision to put him down.
In and of itself, putting a part down is not fun, and explaining what was happening to our young and deeply sensitive kids made things that much worse. We tried to be as straight-forward and simple as we could, explaining that Pigeon's body wasn't working anymore and that he was in pain and the only way we could help him was by bringing him to the doctor to help him die. We assured them that it wouldn't hurt and that even though we wouldn't be able to see him anymore we would still be able to love and remember him.
Let me assure you that straight-forward and simple doesn't always mean "easy," though. So with that in mind, here's how a few moms explains the passing of a dear pet to their children:
"We had a fish for about three years when one morning he was belly up. My son was probably 4.5 at the time. I told him Doc had died and fish don’t live as long as people. He didn’t seem to care that much but wanted to know what we were going to with his body. I mentioned flushing him down the toilet and that turned into an hour long conversation about where poop goes when we flush. Crisis averted."
"Our dog isn't dead yet, but she's elderly and has starting having grand mal seizures on occasion. Those are loud and upsetting to watch, so we've explained to the boys that she's very old and these are signs that her body doesn't work as well anymore (pretty much the same explanation we used when my grandfather died three years ago — gets old, body stops working, dead). We've also said that when she has more bad days than good, we will take her to the vet where she will die, unless she dies at home before that happens. Kids are 3 & 5 (and 4 months, but I'm pretty sure she doesn't care much about the dog), and now they like to tell every visitor we have that, 'This is our dog. She's old and is going to die soon.'"
"Unfortunately we had lost two grandmothers in the same year as we lost our Chihuahua of 10 years — we handled them the same. We told our daughter, who was 4 or 5, that our dog had died and had gone to heaven (with my grandma's dog, his best friend). We said it was OK to be sad because we wouldn't get to see him anymore, but that it sometimes makes us feel better to remember fun times we had with him."
"We’ve been guinea pig parents longer than we’ve been human kid parents and have adopted a few homeless pigs since our sons were born. By the time my oldest was 3 and old enough to understand what death meant, we had adopted a senior pig with a history of neglect and multiple health issues who needed an eye removed, tooth trimming, and multiple medications and vet visits through the 10 months we had her. I brought my son along on vet visits with our pig and he understood that she was very sick and that, sometimes, when you’re sick nothing will make you better except going to sleep.
When she died, we tried to be as truthful as possible: Ophelia was old and sick and she needed to rest and say goodbye. We won’t see her again but she will always remember and love us. He cried softly, said, 'I’m going to miss her,' and we talked about all the things we loved about Ophelia. When we brought home a new friend for our remaining pig, he handled the new addition well and still recognizes pictures of Ophelia, and tells her he loves her."
"We talked 'The Rainbow Bridge,' which is basically doggy heaven where all pets are happy and healthy and one day we'll get to see them again. Before our lab died we had a paw print made and now it's on our mantle along with a picture of the dog and a watercolor painting of The Rainbow Bridge poem. We tell the kids that Bucky isn't ever really gone as long as we remember and love him."
"I took it so much harder than my daughter. I'd had my cat, Violet, since before I met my husband. She was my little princess kitty, and she lived a long time so by the end she was really sick and the kindest thing to do was put her down. My daughter wasn't quite 3 at the time, so even though I explained 'Violet died and we can't see her anymore, but we can remember her and talk about her' she definitely didn't get it. So she'd randomly ask, 'Where is Violet? When is Violet coming back?' Of course this made me start sobbing, which made her start sobbing, which made me sob even harder and we were a mess. Eventually she stopped asking, but it was hard for a while."
"We just had to put our sweet Wilma to sleep on Sunday. We didn't really talk about an afterlife, but I explained that Wilma was really sick and there was nothing we could do to save her. Our vet, a close family friend, came to our house to put her to sleep in the calm, comfort of our home. We talked to the girls about being good pet owners and that means also knowing when to say goodbye in a loving and caring way. There were lots of tears (from me, too) but it was good for the girls to be part of the experience. We buried our girl in a decorated box and Dagny drew a picture to bury with her."
"Our beloved family dog got sick when my daughter was 4 and my son was 2. We knew she didn’t have much time left. We explained to our kids that Dallas was very very sick and she would probably die soon. We put it in very simple terms that when she died we wouldn’t be able to see her or snuggle her anymore, but we should love on her as much as we could while we still had time with her. They cried a lot when she did pass and still, over two years later, they get teary when they talk about her. We aren’t particularly religious so we didn’t really touch on points that a lot of people might mention. We were kind and gentle but also to the point so they’d understand no matter how much we wanted her to, she couldn’t come back."
"I am bad at this. I told my daughter, who was 4 at the time, that our cat went to a farm."
"None of my four children have noticed that the 10-gallon aquarium and all the fish in it have been gone for the last two weeks. We had 10 fish to start and they died one by one, as fish do. They noticed the first few but by the time we were down to five they'd basically forgotten they even owned fish (that they had to have, by the way) . The last three died after a days-long power outage made the water too cold for them and they were flushed and unmourned."
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