Recently, our beloved pet, Duncan, passed away. We had rescued him more than 14 years ago. Although his exact age was not known at the time, the best guess was that he was around two years old. He was close to his last days at the shelter when I went to see him, based on a picture. I had fallen in love with him, but it was our youngest daughter who wanted a pet while in college. He seemed like the perfect choice.
There was no doubt he had had a rough start in life. His fur was quite matted; he had kennel cough and a lot of fleas. While he was being neutered, the vet addressed the cough and flea problem. We brought him to our home to recover and isolated him from our two dogs while his medicine brought him back to health, before taking him to our daughter.
While she was thrilled with this precious pup, her roommate, who had claimed to want a dog, decided she didn’t want this one. So, Duncan came back to us—a welcome addition to our home.
Then, for 14+ years, he was loved and taken care of. He was more than a pet; he was a member of our family. Our other two dogs had passed away, and we had added another, Matilda, who is now 10. She and Duncan were fast friends. His vim and vigor belied his advanced age, so the suddenness of his failing health was a shock to all. He passed away four days after a visit to the vet.
Days after his death, our daughter invited us to bring Matilda over to be with her dogs. Matilda had been at a loss, looking for Duncan in every room and wanting to be by our side constantly. Entering her home, our three-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter’s first question was, “Where’s Duncan?” It was a question we didn’t know how to answer. How do you explain death without scaring a young child?
Therapists have some answers that address this issue. They are based on age, and although most make sense, it depends on the child as to which approach is best. It is important to note that every child is different and, as such, their reactions to the news may also be different. Some of the professional suggestions include the following:
If your pet is aging or a life-ending illness has been diagnosed, it may be time to begin discussing life cycles. If you are religious, perhaps by explaining it was the pet’s time to go be with God. As much as we wish the pet could be with us forever, they have certain life expectancies that are less than ours; but they will wait for us in heaven.
If a pet has been sick, explain that it was in a lot of pain and there was nothing that could be done to save them. Explain that as difficult as it is to let them go, it is unkind and selfish to make them suffer.
There are several excellent books written for children that may be easier for the child to understand in their presentation and pictures. They may also lead to several questions which will guide you in the knowledge of what additional explanations may be needed.
Most of all, break the news as gently as possible. Make sure you are there to hold them when they cry. Let them be sad. It is sometimes better to listen more and say less. Remind them of the good times they had with the pet.
Make sure they know the death was not their fault. Never belittle their feelings—getting over it is personal and may take longer for one child than another. Treat the loss as a big deal, because it is to them. Most of all, be honest.