4

In the last six months my daughter (she'll turn three in November) really got into playing with her grandparents' dog; they live in a different town so we visit them occasionally, and while I don't think she got really attached, she's asking when will be another visit and talks from time to time about playing with or feeding the dog. The dog however was already fifteen, and while we knew it's end is rather close we were completely surprised when it's health rapidly deteriorated to the point of having to put it down due to it's suffering in the recent days.

Now I have no idea how to tell her the dog's dead (and if I should mention death at all) - from what I've already read kids can generally start to grasp the concept of death at the age of six, so it might be not wise to tell her specifically about death (unless it is?); I believe hovewer that I have to say something why she won't be able to see it while treating the matter as seriously as possible for her age.

While I've read the great answers to this question, I think the difference in kids' age may cause some significant differences in what and how should be said and done, so I've decided to ask a separate question.

Update

While it took us some time to think about how and what to say, both answers by @Pyrotechnical and @anongoodnurse's were very valuable.

When we stopped mentioning the dog in our casual talks the memory faded quite quickly, although it was still present nonetheless - we wanted to tell her, and to tell her properly. Most importantly, as she doesn't know any figurative meanings, we agreed to speak about death with this exact term (and connect it to the old age) which means the dog isn't with us anymore and we won't be able to see it. She didn't really ask us anything about dying, but we could see she understood the situation. While the memory fades quickly indeed, we got some really valuable experience, and most impoertantly - I believe we treated our daughter seriously and with appropriate respect.

3 Answers 3

9

When my grandchild was 3, one of my dogs died. Before that, they would play with the dog at my home, and when we video chatted, they would ask to see him, which of course I would do. So they were very familiar with him.

He died suddenly and without warning. Their parents and I discussed how to tell them, and we agreed to simply say that he had died. We explained death to them, and of course they could not grasp the real concept due to their age. So every time they asked about that dog by name (I have 3), I would say, "Max isn't here, honey. Max died. There is no more Max." "Max died?" they'd ask. "Yes, Max died."

This happened a bunch of times. they stopped asking, "Where's Max?" and replaced it with the statement (seemingly out of nowhere, but it was whenever they thought of him) "Max died." "Yes," I'd reply, "Max died. There's no more Max." Eventually they stopped saying that, too. they did ask to see pictures of him, and I'd show her, and they would say, "Max died."

There wasn't any obvious trauma associated with it; they didn't cry or beg to see him or evince any emotion other than confusion. They didn't ask "What is 'died?'" or "Where did he go?" although we did start pointing out dead things to them when we came across them: dead bugs, dead leaves, dead flowers, etc.

They're older now, and don't remember Max. between 5 and 6, they lose many of their memories.

I guess it went as well as it could.

1
  • 1
    I believe such simple explanation was perfect for a three-year old - or at least it worked really well in our case. While the memory dies quickly, we decided to have the talk anyway. Updated Q with the results Aug 19 at 19:19
7

This year has been hard for our family because we've had to put down both our dog and one of our cats due to issues of advanced age.

I had expected that explaining it to my kids (daughter's 5 and son's almost 3) would make these decisions twice as difficult, but I was pretty surprised that it wasn't as bad as I had expected.

For the five year old, I specifically made it a point to sit down with her and explain what the cat and dog were feeling (i.e. a lot of pain) because I saw this coming for awhile. Given that this dog doesn't live with you, I would make it a point to speak with your child about what the dog feels when they start getting old, whenever she brings it up. For my younger, I included him in the conversations, but he didn't really fully understand it.

When having the discussion, there was a few things my wife and I agreed upon for how to convey information:

  • No euphemisms - The doggy 'has died' or 'passed away'. Don't say things like 'put to sleep' because we were concerned that they'd get anxiety about going to bed.
  • No discussion of the process with administering euthanasia - I'm extremely familiar with the process given it's happened twice this year in such a short period; one needle for a sedative, a second needle with a lethal dose of barbituate. And the kids don't need to know about either of these things because we need them to be brave when it's time for them to get their vaccines.
  • Be clear that a veterinarian administers this to help the animal - Unfortunately, I don't have an episode of Doc McStuffins to reference them to with this, but we tried hard to make clear that the animal is in a lot of pain and the veterinarian helps them to die in a way that doesn't hurt.
  • Reinforcement is important - My son doesn't seem to fully get it and that seems to be okay. He'll sometimes ask about our cat and we will remind him she's passed away, to which he simply moves on with something else. My daughter doesn't seem to make these mistakes as often and she'll correct my son to if he mentions that he's going to go play with our deceased cat.

Good luck. <3

UPDATE: It's been a few weeks since our dog passed away and periodically during bedtime, our 5 year old has brought up his passing and needed to cry about it. She didn't cry on the day it happened nor the several weeks after, but I think she's starting to fully understand what we meant when we said that our dog passed away and he's not coming back.

I've a ton of thoughts on the grieving process and ultimately think me and my wife were more upset at the time of it happening because we had a better understanding of what was going on. Our daughter's beginning to understand and with that understanding comes the sadness as well.

Our son hasn't exactly been doing the same thing. But periodically out of nowhere will just say, "<dog's name> died," like a haunted doll or something and then just carry on playing. For him, it seems like it's more of a statement of fact rather than feeling an emotional loss.

2
  • 1
    While @anongoodnurse's was closer to our experience (memory faded quicker than I thought; will udate the question) you've included very important points that helped us a lot plan our talk - thank you for your answer! Aug 19 at 18:50
  • 1
    @RadioactivePickle you're welcome! I've updated the answer a bit to give some more insight regarding the status of things. I wrote this answer very shortly after our dog passed, but our cat had passed a few months prior. Within those few weeks, there were some notable differences and that's likely because a dog is usually more in their lives than an elderly cat whom is content to nap somewhere hard to access. Aug 19 at 21:11
1

Indeed, a child of 3 is incapable of understanding the concept of death. When children really begin to grasp such concepts depends on whom you ask - usually it is associated with development of abstract thinking in pre-adolescent age, that is around 10 years old.

The solution proposed in another answer - simply telling that "X has died" - has the advantage of not creating any mythology, that the child would question and need to revise later in their life. However, they might give the words, that they do not understand, their own interpretation, developing their own myth, which could equally be unwelcome.

Another option, especially if the child does not witness the death (as in the case of a grandparents' pet), is telling that X has went to live in another place and would never come back. One should carefully choose words, to avoid instilling religious ideas (unless you do want to instill them). This approach has the advantage of communicating the necessary: that X is no more there to play with, and from now on it will be like that. (Still, focus on what it means for a child - giving too many details about where X left, and what life is like there, would create unnecessary mythology.)

Update (in response to the issues raised in comments)

(How) do children understand the concept of "dead/death"?
A 3-year-old might not understand the concept of death or understand it very differently from an adult. Indeed, if we kill a fly or mosquito in front of a child and say that now it is "dead", they perfectly grasp what happened: before it was moving and now it is moving not. They might then learn to use word "dead" to describe such situations. However, this does not mean that they really have the same concept of death as adults. Specifically:

  • Reversibility: They are likely to perceive death as reversible, i.e., the child is likely to sincerely believe that with proper repair the "dead" may be restored to their original alive state.
  • Causality: a 3-year-old is not yet making a clear distinction between physical and non-physical world. They thus may not perceive the death as something resulting from the physical changes in the object, but think of it as being caused, e.g., by somebody's evil thoughts. For an adult this might appear as a highly mystical view, but from the perspective of a child this is non-contradictory.
  • Universality: A child does not understand that the concept of death applies to all objects (at least all alive objects). They might have difficultly to understand how what happened to a mosquito may happen to a pet or a human.
  • Perspective: they are not capable to put themselves in a position of a person risking death or ceasing to exist. They are likely to perceive death as simple inconvenience, that the desired pet/person is not out there for them.

In my opinion this document outlines quite well how the concept of death matures with age, reaching understanding close to that of adults in pre-adolescence. (The stages are close to those of Piaget theory, similar descriptions can be found in many places, even though Piaget is not always directly referred to.)

Does avoiding talking about death with children undermine their trust?
An adult might feel that avoiding euphemisms or allegories in discussing death makes them honest vis-à-vis their children, and engenders trust. However, in view of the things discussed above, we see that this is not necessarily the case: by openly speaking about death with their child, the parents might be using language that is either incomprehensible or misleading. In a way, a child might feel like a lay person, who is given a lecture on a highly technical subject by a condescending expert. Alternatively, they may eventually discover that, although the parent spoke in seemingly familiar words, they meant something totally different, perhaps deliberately intending to deceive.

This is not to say that the subject should be avoided, but rather that the conceptual information that the parent communicates to the child, and how this information is helpful to them in avoiding deception (when not encountering the dead pet/person anymore or when growing up to fully understand death) is more important than the particular words used.

2
  • 1
    I realize that my kids are not exactly average (whose are?), but they had no problem understanding the concept of dead vs. alive way, way before the age you mention.
    – Stephie
    Aug 20 at 16:38
  • @Stephie I recall reading that fear of death emerges on concrete operational stage in Piaget theory, which is 7-11 years of age. I can't locate the exact passage unfortunately. I suppose mechanistic understanding of death can come earlier, but then children hardly find it shocking. A 3 year old sees no problem petting a little pig, watching Peppa, and eating bacon within an hour, knowing that they are all related. Aug 20 at 17:04

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.