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.
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.
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.
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.)