Teaching Our Children About Love And Loss

Hi Janet,

Our first “baby”, our beloved dog Maxine, is going to have to be euthanized.  She’s about 15 and in failing health. We are obviously heartbroken.

As devoted followers of Magda Gerber‘s respectful child care approach, my partner and I wanted to know if you had any advice on how to explain to our 3 year old daughter what is about to happen.  We have no problem using the word “dead” or “dying”, and we don’t want to say she’s going to “heaven”.  We have a rough idea of what we are going to say but wanted to check in with you to get your opinion on what is sure to be a very difficult and emotional time. Also, if you have any recommendations for books written expressly for children on this subject.

Thank you in advance.

David

Hi David,

Oh, no… I am so sorry to hear about Maxine! You sound heavy hearted. I’ve been there and know how terribly hard it is to lose a beloved pet. Our pets give us the most perfect unconditional love, inspiring ours in return.

As it sounds like you’ve planned, tell your daughter simply, directly and honestly about Maxine being euthanized and the truth about death as you know it. Listen to her responses patiently and non-judgmentally. Answer her questions. Openly share your feelings and allow her to express hers, too. Whatever feelings she has or doesn’t have are acceptable, ‘right’, and enough. The understanding you’ve gained through Magda Gerber‘s approach about developing an honest, respectful relationship with your daughter will guide you well in this difficult situation as it has in others.

I’m imagining you’ll say something along the lines of, “We are sorry to tell you that Maxine has become so sick, weak and tired that we are going to give her medicine that will help her to feel comfortable and die. This makes us really sad. We’re going to miss her very, very much.”

Then, if she asks about details you’ll share them. “She will get a shot. It might hurt for a moment, but then she’ll relax and drift away.”

I have two book suggestions for you and your partner and a picture book to read to your daughter:

I’ll Always Love You, a tear-jerker (as if you needed one) about a boy dealing with the death of the family dog.

When Children Grieve and The Grief Recovery Handbook (for adults), both by John James and Russell P. Friedman, provide excellent roadmaps for understanding grief and processing it in the healthiest, most productive manner possible. Their recommendations reflect all I’ve learned about healthy social emotional development through infant specialist Magda Gerber.  The gist of their message: We not only all have unique responses to loss —  we respond to each loss uniquely. Allow yourself to feel your feelings, share them with your child, and give her the freedom and the time to process her unique feelings, too. Unfinished grief creates problems that can have a profound effect on our life.

Your grief

The feelings you and your partner have about the loss of your “first baby” are likely to be intense. Your daughter will know when you are distracted and upset, and articulating your feelings to  her will not only bring her the comfort of clarity, it will help her understand and connect with her own.

Falling apart in front of your daughter might be too alarming for her, but share your thoughts and feelings about Maxine as much as possible. “I’m sorry I snapped at you. I’m feeling grumpy because I am missing Maxine. It hurts.”  “This photo of you and Maxine is making me sad. I loved her so much.”   “I’m crying about Maxine this morning.”

Go easy on yourself. Lighten up on activities and lower expectations of yourself as much as you can. Let your daughter do less, too. Treat your grief as a kind of illness.

Your child’s grief

Here are six guidelines from John W. James’ book When Children Grieve: For Adults to Help Children Deal with Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving, and Other Losses. I can’t recommend this book highly enough…

Listen with your heart, not your head. Allow all emotions to be expressed, without judgment, criticism, or analysis.

Recognize that grief is emotional, not intellectual. Avoid the trap of asking your child what is wrong, for he or she will automatically say, “Nothing.”

Adults – go first.  Telling the truth about your own grief will make your child feel safe in opening up about his or her own feelings.

Remember that each of your children is unique and has a unique relationship to the loss event.

Be patient. Don’t force your child to talk.

Never say “Don’t feel sad” or “Don’t feel scared.” Sadness and fear, the two most common feelings attached to loss of any kind, are essential to being human.

Since you are followers of Magda Gerber’s approach, these guidelines for hearing and sharing feelings must sound strikingly familiar. (These books were also the inspiration for my first blog post Good Grief – When Babies Need To Cry about allowing our babies to experience healthy grief.)

This has been hard for me to write (and I admit I’ve been avoiding it) because I’m reminded of the first baby I still miss intensely, our black lab-mix Earl, who was euthanized 6 years ago. He supported and comforted me during the trials of motherhood with 3 babies. He chivalrously accepted the change in our relationship when I became a mom, making do with far less attention than he had become accustomed to, always cheerful, sensitive, affectionate, loyal, and ever hopeful of an outing to the beach or park (or a slice of pizza, his favorite). These animals are our angels.

But the good news is that this is an incredible opportunity, because through all the experiences you, your partner and your daughter have shared with Maxine, and the healthy model you will now provide after losing her, you are all teaching your little girl invaluable lessons about joy, pain and what it really means to love.

David, I am so sorry for your loss. My thoughts and prayers will be with you and your family. Thank you for allowing me to share your letter here.

Warmly,                                                                                                                                                                                                        Janet

When I posted this exchange on Facebook recently, Vicki Gura Paliaroli, a therapist at Henry Ford Health System in southeast Michigan, offered some really helpful feedback and allowed me to share it here:

Hi Janet. I think your advice is very loving and supportive and allows the child to be able to express her emotions fully. As a therapist who previously worked for hospice, I know how difficult it can be to discuss death with children. One thing that has always stuck with me is to use very real terms with children, for example “cancer”, “heart attack”, or “stroke” to explain how a loved one died. When a child hears “very sick” this can be too vague and they can worry about what will happen if he/she should become “too sick”. Innocently enough, a parent may tell a child that they are too sick to go to school. A child could start to fear that maybe they will be getting ‘the shot’ next. I don’t mean to go to extremes, but children, as you know, need very concrete information. Thanks for allowing me to share my thoughts. I have learned so much from your articles and practice the RIE teachings with my own 4 y/o daughter. My only regret is that I learned about it when she was already 3! But, our relationship is so much healthier, loving, and trusting while following these principals. Thanks for the wonderful work you do!

 

(Photo of first baby Earl and me near the end of his life is by my friend Alessandra De Clario, Ph.D.)

19 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thanks for this post, Janet. We have a 15 year old cat, Holly, who has become the old lady of the house. Once the best birder and ratter in the ‘hood, she now spends her days lounging on the couch and yelling at us when it rains. For the first couple years we had our daughter, she was a jealous older sister, storming out and living an independent night-life on the streets, coming in to hide and sleep during her days. She now cries when one of our three daughters is gone to a friend or relative’s house, she let’s the little one pet her without bolting. She is holding her own, but we know it is just a matter of time before she leaves us. My husband almost sat on her tonight and I thought, that would be it! It is going to be tough on all of us. Your advice is good and I think I will print it out and keep it on hand.

    1. Wow! Holly sounds like a survivor. I love the relationship our pets have with our children. Thank you for sharing and take care…

  2. Thank you very much for your reply. This is very helpful and will be of immense use when the time comes.

    We really appreciate your advice and sharing your own experience relating to this difficult subject.

    Much appreciated!

    David

    1. Thank you again for allowing me to share your sensitive situation and please take good care…

  3. I met Earl when I took my Great Dane Zenith to the beach in Venice in the early 1990’s. All the “dog people” got up really early to get down to the beach before the life guards (dogs really weren’t supposed to be on the beach!oops!). From the moment they met, Earl and Zenith fell in love and had wonderful magical times playing and running on the beach. When Earl moved Zenith visited him more than 3 times a week and finally we moved to be near him.

    He was a fine gentleman! A real Earl! I was privileged to be present when Earl traveled over the Rainbow Bridge. At the time Janet had young children – her youngest at the time I think was only about 3. It was wonderful that the vet came to their home and I remember how we all huddled around Earl while he \”went to sleep\”. Janet comforted the youngest and they prepared to get Earl ready to be buried. It was then that I realized that the children needed something to do – they were quite perplexed. A hole had already been dug and I started gathering flowers from the surrounding plants and put them into the hole. This gave the kids a task … and it was a loving task. Each child loving brought flowers and lay them into the hole. We all did our prayers then and said our goodbye. I really think that the children had a feeling of helping Earl walk his last walk over Rainbow Bridge by gathering the flowers.
    I am glad that Janet mentioned the book \”When Children Grieve\” by John James and Russell Friedman. I had the pleasure of having these two men guide me through my training and am now a Grief Recovery Specialist and use this book (and \”The Grief Recovery Handbook\”)and also highly recommend it.

    The wonderful thing is that you care and feel and know to be prepared. Your daughter is lucky to be exposed to RIE and to have caring parents! And Maxine – well Maxine is certainly a happy girl to have been with you all… and you all were lucky to have Maxine. And so it will be forever.
    I will always see Earl and Zenith playing on the beach (they are you know…running… together now over the Rainbow Bridge). Love lasts forever!
    Peace,

    1. Alessandra, thank you so much for sharing this story and reminding me of some of the details…

  4. I just wanted to share a quick note. As a professional nanny I have helped many families through deaths of their pets. I think Janet is spot on in her ideas, however I would add that you should tell you child that this “medicine” is only something a vet can give. I once had a family who told their son that the medicine would help their cat feel comfortable enough to die, and he refused to take medicine for months. (He had chronic ear infections)
    Just my opinion

    1. Dawn, I think your advice about “medicine” is spot on and I’m really glad you shared it.

  5. David & family, I just wanted to support your bravery in addressing this issue with your child before you euthanize your pet. My family had many pets and I was never warned before they were taken to the vet to be put to sleep. One time they didn’t even tell me until I noticed the pet’s absence from the house half a day later. Once I knew, we never talked openly about our feelings, and I always felt distant from the event, like I never understood what had really happened.

    It’s hard as a parent to talk about these things with your child when you are already grieving. The fact that you are working through your pain enough to do this shows that you really respect your child’s feelings and process of grieving.

    1. Christina, wow. That shocks me a little, but I imagine death is commonly handled that way with children. To me, that shows an incredible underestimation of a child’s awareness and sensitivity. But your parents probably believed that they were being kind not to trouble you with such things, or just didn’t want to “go there” themselves.

      I agree that David and his partner are behaving bravely, and it’s kind of you to point that out.

    2. Christina,

      Thank you for sharing your experience (as sad and unfortunate as that was), and for your kind words.

      Much appreciated.

  6. avatar Sara Carter says:

    Must read: Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley. As a multiple pet owner (we’ve loved and lost in every way possible; planned and unplanned), I’ve given my kiddos a chance to say goodbye to their beloved pets when the time came and when it was possible. Also, for older kids, read Rainbow Bridge stories.

    1. Thanks for these great suggestions, Sara. The Rainbow Bridge is wonderful!

  7. I’d like to recommend another book in this discussion, though for the loss of a pet it might be a bit over-the-top: Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. It’s the author’s story of losing his son to a terminal illness. It’s a picture book geared toward preschool and young elementary age kids, and is honest about the range of emotions the author feels.

    http://www.amazon.com/Michael-Rosens-Boston-Globe-Horn-Honors/dp/0763625973/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1390160773&sr=1-1&keywords=the+sad+book

  8. I suggest another book about the death of a pet, in this case a cat, “The Tenth Good Thing about Barney.”

  9. I’m sorry for your loss, David. We too are facing this situation with our dog who has cancer. I want to be honest with my 4.5 year old and I have had some discussion with him about how our dog is approaching the end of his life.

    Question if I may? My son caught me off guard during one of our conversations and asked if he too would die. I admitted everything dies one day and he us now preoccupied with his own mortality. I’ve tried to reassure him that it won’t happen for a long time (touch wood), but he randomly says “I can’t stop thinking about when I’m going to die.”

    We’re not religious so discussions about the “after life” are foreign. Any tips or suggestions on how to help him process a pets’ death without putting too much stress on him about human death? Thank you xo

  10. We just went through exactly the same thing David. It’s so difficult, I feel for you. I was a wreck primarily because I was so distraught thinking about how sad this would be for my 3 yr old daughter. We too wanted to be careful about the words we chose (no Heaven or “going to sleep”) and yet be honest and somehow help her understand that our dog wasn’t coming back. Two things to add to the wonderful advice above… First – I found the selection of books challenging because many included ideas or language we weren’t comfortable using. The one I found that is very open, simple and to the point is called “The Goodbye Book” by the wonderful Todd Parr. It’s about losing a friend. If you don’t know his books they are very special!! Bright, simple illustrations that are beautifully inclusive. Second – our daughter’s reaction to the news wasn’t at all what I expected so best to stay open to anything. She has never been openly sad although we talk about missing and loving the dog. We didn’t over-explain at all, we let it go and have waited for any questions to pop up over the past few months but there has been nothing. She has found some cute ways to let it be known that she wants another dog but hasn’t shed a tear about the one we lost! This dog was truly her best friend. We were shocked but she seems to be just taking it all in stride which has been very comforting to us 🙂 Wishing you peace during this difficult time.

  11. Thank you for sharing.

  12. Another great book, depicting a boxer, is “Snorts Special Gift”. It’s a family’s journey through the loss of their boxer. Being through this recently, a stuffed boxer puppy has been very helpful for my 2 year old who, a month later, still says “Bye, BOO!” As we leave the house.

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