Discussing the death of our pet dog with my toddler

Why I discussed the death of our pet dog with my 3 year old daughter

 

Death and grief is something that I deal with on a daily basis. Unfortunately I was faced with dealing with the loss of my father at a young age. When I was 19 years old my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer and he died when I was 20. Understanding my background will help to comprehend my decision to explain to my 3 year old that our dog had died.

 

RIP dad

For many children their first experience of grief is the loss of a pet.

 

I feel that if we can hopefully get that as close to right as possible then this is going to set the scene for how they will deal with grief in the long run. I have unfortunately seen family members struggle to come to terms with their grief over multiple generations and I was determined not to let my grief destroy me.

 

I have spent many hours with my psychologist discussing my grief and she is truly a miracle worker for me. She has taught me how to deal with my emotions, to accept my weaknesses and come to terms with the loss of my father. I know that I can never change what happened, I can accept it. I don’t have to like it but I can accept that this is the hand that I’ve been dealt.

 

Why did I tell my daughter that our dog had died and not gone to visit a farm?

 

It was the death of my father and personal experiences which lead me to tell my daughter that our little dog Percy had died and to explain it to her in terms that she could understand. My cheeky little Percy died at home 18 months ago, I felt utterly helpless as he died in my arms and there was nothing that I could do. He was an old boy, he had multiple health issues but I still was shocked when I found him unconscious and taking his last breaths. I have never felt so useless. As a vet I’m supposed to save my patients and when it came to my own dog all I could was be there for him – that’s a post for another day.

 

I made the decision pretty quickly that I wanted to explain to my daughter that Percy had died and let her say goodbye to him. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be the right decision but my gut was telling me it was the right thing to do. So, when she got up from her afternoon nap, I sat down with her and explained to her that Percy had died and that we had to take him to mummy’s work and that he wouldn’t be coming home. She had also been exposed to the word “died” before as I had made a family album for her with pictures of her grandparents and great grandparents in it and I had told her that mummy’s dad, her Pa, had died.

 

I asked if her she wanted to give Percy a pat goodbye and she did. Off we went to work to drop Percy off. I was crying like a baby the whole way. I cried in front of Lily and allowed her to see my emotion that I was upset and that it was ok.

 

Percy and Jack

 

In the days and weeks that passed she would ask me, “when is Percy coming home” and I would say “Percy has died, he’s in doggy heaven and he won’t be coming home”. She would sometimes tell me that it was sad and that she wanted to see him again. I would agree with her but say that once a doggy dies then they can’t come back. She would then announce to everyone that Percy had died and that he was in doggy heaven and he wasn’t coming back. So, it meant every now and then I would start to well up at the supermarket or wherever it was that she decided to announce it. But I was happy that she wasn’t afraid to talk about it.

 

I knew that I had made the right decision 6 months later when my husband’s Nan passed away. We told her that her great Nan had died and she turned around and said “Great Nan is in doggy heaven with Percy”. She drew a beautiful picture to be given to Great Nan to take to heaven for Percy and she drew another beautiful picture of Percy and Great Nan together to give to her Grandma who was very sad because her mummy had died.

 

I believe that I did the right thing for my daughter. Grief is a very personal experience. There is no right or wrong way to grieve and I have seen many different approaches. I don’t know if I would have let her be with Percy when he died (even if it was by euthanasia) as I feel that would have been too confronting for her however if a client chooses to have their child there that is their choice and I certainly wouldn’t judge them. I have clients who chose to be with their pets, other’s who cannot face it and that is ok. If they can’t be in the room for whatever reason then my colleagues and I will give that pet all of our love and cuddles whilst it drift off to sleep.

 

Would you or have you talked to your three year old about the death of a pet?

  • Story of Percy
  • Percy 2
  • Percy 3
  • Percy 4
  • Percy edit
  • Happy toddler with puppies

12 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing your story Belinda. For starters, sorry for the loss of your dad and Percy. I too lost my dad suddenly 9 years ago and my two eldest children were 4 and 2 at the time. We discussed this openly with my boys and explained how his heart stopped working. Sadly they didn’t get to physically see my dad like I did before he was cremated. They only saw the coffin, but we explained every question and curiosity they asked.

    A few years down the track our beloved bunny died early one morning. His name was Friskey but I called him Funny Bunny because he like humping the boys legs, another story. I found him lying out in the rain after coming back from a walk. I called the vets (the same place you work) and as I had a feeling he too was taking his last breaths I woke up my three boys, the youngest was about 4. I woke them up because I felt death was important and that they should say goodbye to Funny Bunny. It was a very sad day but we each held our bunny and stroked him for a while after he died, we took our time and didn’t rush, then we started talking about how much we loved him and the funny and lovely things he did and how much we’d miss him.

    My husband took my eldest outside in the rain and dug a grave in the back yard garden, nice and deep. We then laid him in a shoe box with some flowers and wrote our love messages on the shoe box. It was very sad for us all but it was the right thing to do and it was a special time for the children to say good bye to Funny Bunny. Knowing that his body wasn’t working any more and his spirit had gone to heaven helped my boys in their grief. I don’t think telling fibs to children to escape emotions is a good idea. I think being able to express their emotions and their love for their beloved pet is important too! Be honest and tell them to their level of understanding and comfort them as it is very sad.

    • I’m sorry too Lisha for the loss of your dad. Like you I think it’s so important to be open and honest about it with them. It sounds like Funny Bunny was a special part of your lives too. I’m so glad that you were able to be with him and give him a little send off at home. I’m sure it made it a lot easier for your boys as well as you. I agree with you, there is no benefit in hiding it from them. Unfortunately death is something we are all going to have to face as sometime. I think it’s those little things like writing those messages that make the big difference. Thank you for sharing your story too.

  2. Hi Belinda – thank you for your post. I found it very touching – and I must say, I dread the moment when I’ll have to say goodbye to my two fur babies as well. I haven’t had the chance to explain what death is to a young child, but sometimes with my clients, I talk freely about what I believe – that there’s no time after death, but we all meet again (yes, including dogs). And so I tell them that when their dogs head on to the other side, they’ll see us there (because we have to go sometime as well). And while we still have many, many more years to go, for dogs, they go over and see us immediately. It usually takes a while for this to sink in, but I’ve seen how comforting this thought is. It’ll be tricky to explain this to a child though!

    • Dr Belinda Parsons

      Thanks Nic. I really like what you tell your clients. I agree I think it is very comforting to think that they are waiting for us with wagging tails. From my experience it’s lots of repetition with children, they will keep asking you why they can’t come back and why they can’t go an visit. I just kept it simple and that seemed to help.

  3. Thanks for sharing about this. My wife’s sister died in a car accident a year and a half ago, when our daughter was only a year and a half. It is only in the last few months that she has now expressed more interest in understanding what it means that her aunt is dead. We’ve decided that in this case it’s best to talk freely and truthfully, and she’s surprised us with her apparent maturity in accepting it all.

    • Thank you Elliott. I’m so sorry to hear about your sister in law. That’s terrible. I’m glad you’ve been able to talk to your daughter about it. Like you I was amazed at how well my daughter coped with it. Even though my girls will never know my dad I still want them to know about him and so I’ve made little family album with his picture in it and they recognise him and tell me that he’s mummy’s dad. Quite sweet. Thank you for sharing too.

  4. Hey Bel, I think this is such a fantastic post. It is such an important part of life, like you said and often brushed over. I really like the way you put it and totally agree with discussing the reality of it to help them and give them the chance to deal with grief as an emotion.

  5. What a very beautiful story.It made me cry!! Percy was so beautiful and it looks like he loved your daughter a great deal.I believe that you were right to tell her the truth about Percy’s death.Children are very bright and its better they know about life and death then to make a up a story.If explained in the right way children can grasp truth better then people believe.

    • Thank you Debra! Tears were also shed in the writing on this post! I’m always amazed at how well children can cope with situations like this.

  6. […] I was scrolling through a baby/children forums looking to see if my article about grief and children would be a suitable submission and I thought I’d have a read of the other pet and children […]

  7. Thank you for writing such an open and honest post. Tears here reading it and thinking that one day that conversation will happen in this house…. Us dogs just don’t hang around long enough.

    • Thank you Bodhi. You certainly don’t hand around long enough! Plenty of tears were shed in writing the post too but I’m glad I did. Sending big pats your way!

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