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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?

UPDATE:

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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2 Answers

up vote 8 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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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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