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My son loves our 9 year old cat very much. The cat was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer a couple of months ago, and has reached the point where we will soon need to make arrangements to put the cat down and end its suffering. My son doesn't know that the cat is terminally ill, he just knows that the cat isn't feeling well. How do I talk to him out what is going to happen? Do I tell him before so he can say goodbye, or do I tell him after so he won't worry? How do I do this without him worrying that anytime he (or anyone else) gets sick, he might die?


The day came when we finally had to put our family pet down. My wife and I prepared our son by telling him about two days in advance that our cat was very sick (which he already knew), and that he could pass away very soon (which he didn't know). I emphasized that he should spend some time saying goodbye to our cat and bringing him any comfort he can. My wife and I did not tell him that we were going to euthanize the cat. We sent him to play at his grandparents house (who he frequently sees and spends time with anyway, so nothing would strike him as unusual about this) the day we euthanized our pet. When it was over, we called him and told him that he had to come home because our cat had died. We let him see and pet the body. We also let him see me bury the body in the backyard, where we all said a few nice words and shed some tears. My son asked a few questions (will our cat be in heaven, etc.), but didn't seem to take the situation too hard.

All things considered, I think the way my wife and I handled the situation worked out fine. Thanks for all your help!

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3 Answers 3

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I would definitely tell him in advance, to give him a chance to process the fact in time, and to say goodbye to the cat.

Morah made a good point about leaving the sickness out of the explanation, that may be one strategy. However, my feeling is that telling that the cat just died, without any clear reason, may be equally frightening for the kid if he has a tendency to get frightened by such things.

So I would rather explain that the cat died because it was very severely ill, and the doctors couldn't save its life; that there are different kinds of sicknesses, some just make your nose run for a few days, others may make you sick for longer times, and need doctors' assistance and medicines to recover. And sometimes even doctors can't help, and one dies, which means that it goes away, and we won't ever meet again.

I think a lot more depends on your mood and internal feelings than the exact words you use. If you feel uncomfortable talking about death, your son will sense it and it will make him agitated or fearful too. In Western culture, there is a lot of fear about death, and this is the way we pass it on to our children. We don't talk about it, and we hide our own dying relatives and pets out of sight, into darkened hospital rooms or the vet's lab. But our feelings we can't eliminate, only repress. And the children sense them anyway.

So if he asks, I would not hide the fact that all of us, people, animals, plants, will die one day. But for him (and us), it's going to happen many, many years after yet. However, I agree with Morah that there is no need to try to explain him too much. Give him the basic facts and then let him ask questions. If he asks a tricky one, like "where does the cat go when it dies?", you may ask back "what do you think?". Then continue the answer depending on the level and direction of his ideas.

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When our cat became sick, we simply explained everything to our kids as it happened. We explained that while some treatments could extend the cat's life, nothing would ultimately work and meanwhile the cat would be in a pretty miserable condition. We explained what euthanasia was, and when it could be used - for instance only for very sick animals, but not humans (though I suppose older children might be more involved in discussions about assisted suicide). We explained what would happen at the vet's office, and asked them if they wanted to come during the process. Two did - the 8 and 9 year old - and the older and younger children did not (which was good because the room at the vet's office wouldn't have fit our large family anyway).

They distracted themselves during the actual procedure, and I wasn't going to force them into any particular way of acting.

We then took the remains home and asked them if they wanted to be involved in digging the burial spot. One of them did and the process was good for them as they came to grips with what they were feeling. For the next week or so we fielded questions about death, illness, and so forth. One was particularly concerned about how euthanasia applies to humans - often asking various scenarios about themselves and checking to see if it was something we'd consider - and we were very consistent in our response that pets are different in how we treat them. To a degree they are family, but whereas we will go to extreme lengths to preserve the lives and health of our children, we will not do so for our animals. We love them, we miss them, but we don't put ourselves in financial or other significant risk for an animal, while we will most certianly do so for our children.

During this time we did end up explaining assisted suicide with them as well and how our religious values inform our decisions regarding our pets and family.

The younger children were largely uninterested in the details - and despite most of the conversations happening around them they probably didn't fully grasp everything. I don't know that there's an age cutoff where a less open discussion is needed - it really depends on the child and their capability and understanding - as well as your ability to manage the conversations that result.

Certainly I'd also recommend that if your children are under the care of others for any length of time (daycare, babysitting, etc) during this period, let the caregiver know the situation, and what you've conveyed, and what you'd like them to convey when asked about it. You child may ask them specific questions, and if unprepared the caregiver may be flippant depending on the question or how it was asked, not understanding that your child is going through a grieving process. Make sure they are at least aware so they aren't 1) caught off guard and 2) say something they may later regret because they didn't understand the situation.

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I have yet to be in this situation but my instinct would say keep the word sick out of it, for the reason you listed. As well, don't tell him you chose to have the cat put down, that is simply too scary for him. Instead simply say that sometimes living things, like animals and plants and people die. This means that we can't play with them anymore. Then let him lead. Over the next few weeks questions will come up and answer them, but do not elaborate, answer the question and then move on.

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+1 for letting him lead. – Péter Török Jan 18 '12 at 21:24

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