How to talk About the Death of a Pet With Children
As I write this, today, my Addie girl is actively dying. She is surrounded by her family who are all grieving while she sleeps. Ember seems to be taking it the hardest. This isn’t the first pet she has lost, but Addie has been with her for as long as she can remember, so she’s having a hard time. Watching her cry and trying to explain things to her as best as I can is rough. It’s hard to talk about the death of a pet with children. Yet, somehow, we always end up in this situation. Especially here at The House of Misfits.
Addie, the queen
Addie is a tiny but mighty thing. She came to us after going home to home because she was stubborn and was pooping on pillows. I wish I could say she stopped that bad habit, but I can only say that she didn’t have to home hop again because of it.
She took the throne after the passing of my 18-year-old soul mate, Boots. I lost Boots to kidney failure, the same gruesome thing that Addie is now fighting.
Addie runs the house. The dogs know it. The cats know it. Pancake… accepts it. Addie has always been the one to keep the others in line. She was always there to stop a fight and put someone in their place. She never backed down. She isn’t but 11lbs when healthy, but she took on our 70lb lab over some leftovers. It resulted in a broken jaw, but she sure got the food.
Sitting here and seeing her so weak and pitiful is heartbreaking. If you haven’t had to deal with kidney failure in dogs before, you’re lucky. The deterioration happens fast if you miss the subtle signs of the beginning stages, like I did. She hasn’t eaten in five days and can barely walk now. She stumbles around and is very scared and confused. Not like the Addie we all know and love.
Children understand more than we realize
I’ve always told Ember the truth. I don’t sugar coat things for her. I don’t make up stories to make things easier. When something is going on in the world, I explain it with full detail, at a level she can understand. I refuse to raise a child who is ignorant to the actual ways of our world. She needs to know so that she can make a difference one day.
Explaining the death of a pet to children is no different. I fully believe they deserve to know. They are smart little beings. I know, as a child, I was always questioning things in my head. Religion never made sense to me. If there was a hole in a story, I would find it. I’m still like this today.
I think that being this way has made me more aware of the things going on around me and in our world. I am more empathetic to people who are in different situations than I am. I am not naïve to situations that I have not experienced, personally. I am capable of understanding that not everything in our world is beautiful and I’ve been this way for my entire life. This is how I want Ember to see the world, too.
“Why do they have to die?”
The question that I can’t seem to explain well enough to Ember. The question that she asks time and time again. “Why do they have to die? It’s not fair.”
She’s right. It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that bad people get to live and the innocent ones suffer. It’s not fair that we have to say goodbye to the only beings who have never done us wrong and the only ones who will ever love us unconditionally and without fail.
So, when Ember asks me, “why do they have to die?”, I tell her the truth. Our bodies and the bodies of other beings aren’t made to live forever. As we get older, so do our organs. Just like fruits and vegetables get old and rot, so do our organs. Some bodies are healthy and live a long time. However, some bodies get sick, like mine, and that makes them go bad a little sooner than a healthy body. Addie’s body is old and her organs started to go bad. They don’t work like they used to and when one doesn’t work, the others start to go bad, too.
“what happens when they die?”
Our home isn’t religious but when she has questions about religion, we do our best to explain it to her. But we do not use religion as an answer. So, in place of the whole “Addie will go to heaven” plot, I explain it in a way that would make a bit more sense to her and, perhaps, provide a bit of peace.
We don’t know for sure what happens while we die because there isn’t a way to get a definite answer. But here is what I think. You know how at night when you go to sleep, your mind drifts off into a dream? That’s what Addie is going to do. She is going to fall into a good dream. A dream about her family and all the good years she had with us. She’s going to think about all her favorite memories with us and think about how much she loves us. She will do this until she falls into a deep sleep and dream. Like the ones that we can’t remember.
“Will she be scared?”
Will she be scared? She may be because dying is a scaring feeling when we don’t know what comes next but having her family around her will make it a little less scary. When she falls into her dream she won’t be scared anymore. She will be comforted by her good memories.
We will stay by her side until she falls into that dream and let her know that we love her and that she will be okay. When her body is ready to stop, her mind will go into that deep sleep, like the ones we can’t remember, and her worry will go away.
“Will she remember us?”
She will remember us while she has her good dream. She’s going to remember all the times we had together and remember how much she loves us and how much we love her.
The important thing is that we will remember her. She may not be with us any longer, but she will always be in our memories, our dreams and most importantly in our hearts. We will carry her with us for the rest of our life.
The rainbow bridge
The idea of The Rainbow Bridge is a beautiful one. When considering how to talk about the death of a pet with children, we often want to find a way that brings peace and comfort to them and us.
The Rainbow Bridge is one of those ways. Similar to the idea of a heaven, the bridge is a beautiful place where all of our pets go to live their eternal life. They will run free and painless doing all the things they love. When it’s our time to die, they will be waiting for us there, to walk at our side, once again.
I haven’t really talked about this with Ember because I don’t want to put false ideas in her head. I need her to understand and find peace without forcing her to believe what I do or do not.
Others have talked about heaven and the Rainbow Bridge with her before and if she brings it up and finds comfort with it, then we will take that comfort. As an adult, while I may not believe in religion, I believe we have energy and that energy has to go somewhere when it leaves our body. Whether it is heaven for a human, or the Rainbow Bridge for an animal, I don’t know for sure. However, there is comfort in the idea.
Ember will grow to believe in whatever idea brings her the most comfort. So will your child, whether we force it on them or not. And that is okay.
Normalize talking about death
If we normalize talking about death openly with children, now, then they will be able to properly grieve as adults. If we can talk about the death of a pet with children then the death of, say, a family member, will be something that they are already capable of understanding and will be able to process and accept.
We have to make it okay to talk about. Death is a normal and natural part of life. When we lose someone or something we love deeply, talking about it hurts, but talking about it helps us to accept it. Ember was four when my mom died. At four years old, she had a lot of questions. She was very close with my mom, so she wanted to talk about her. Talking about my mom, to this day, is still hard for me. For a long time, I had to ask Ember to stop talking about it. I regret that.
So now, I try to speak about death in a more open manner because the reality of the situation is that death happens and will continue to happen. We, as humans, have to learn how to cope with it or it will destroy us. I want Ember to be able to talk about it and feel like she can bring it up and ask questions. I don’t want her making assumptions or scaring herself, unnecessarily.
Be honest and remember they are grieving
In some ways, I think that children experiencing the death of their pet first is a good thing. If this is their first experience with death, then we, as parents, will be able to explain it a bit easier than we could if it was a family member. Then when the time comes that it is their family, children will have a head start in understanding what happened or what is happening and how to cope with the loss.
Trust their little minds to understand more than what you think they can. Telling them that their dog ran away is not helping them in the long run. Explain it to them now and in the future when they need you, they will trust you.
Allow the pet, that taught them about life, love, compassion and responsibility, to continue to teach them in their memory. Allow that pet to help them learn to cope with death and understand that while we have lost someone or something that we loved dearly, we can grieve and be sad, but still move on. Don’t let that pet’s life and death go to waste. They can continue to serve a purpose.
Allow your child and yourself to grieve the loss of a beloved pet together.
To my addie girl
Thank you for pooping on those pillows all those years ago because if you hadn’t, we wouldn’t be sitting here together, 13 years later. Thank you for being such a PITA and such a stubborn little turd because those memories will last me a lifetime. Thank you for being at my side as I grew from a teenager into an adult and by Ember’s side from infancy through late childhood. Thank you for loving us and letting us love you. Thank you for teaching Ember about love, compassion, and now the circle of life.
You will always be remembered and will always have a spot in our hearts.
If the Rainbow Bridge is real, my girl, I know that Boots will be waiting for you at the entrance, to once again, show you the way. I hope that our energies will cross paths, again, in another lifetime because one just wasn’t enough. Tell Boots that her mama misses her dearly and remember us while you’re running free and bathing in the sun.
Sleep easy, my girl, and I hope your dream is the best one, yet.
Addie Grace took her final nap on November 4, 2022. She was at peace surrounded by her family.