Care and Feeding

Our Dog Is at Death’s Door

What should I tell our 4-year-old?

A girl sits by a dog, who's lying on the ground, wearing a leash.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 4-year-old daughter, “Ginny,” has had to deal with a lot of death over the past year: one of our dogs, my mother’s dog, my mother’s close friend and roommate—both of whom Ginny loved—and a grandfather she didn’t really know. Now she has made the leap to ME dying. It didn’t help that someone tried to show her Bambi. (She did not make it past Bambi’s mother dying, and she spent two weeks worried that I would be shot by hunters.) She has also apparently decided that cemeteries are where you go to die and recently got very upset that when it was her turn to die she wouldn’t know which cemetery to go to. She tells me every day that she will miss me if I die.

Unfortunately, we have a 15-year-old dog, Sunny, who will soon need to be euthanized. What’s the best way to do this so that it’s as nontraumatizing for our daughter as possible? The other dog very suddenly went into renal failure, so Ginny could see that she was sick and at least somewhat understood that something was wrong that couldn’t be fixed. With Sunny, it’s been a slow decline, with signs that are subtler and harder to explain. My mother has suggested that when it’s time to euthanize her, we do so quietly, while Ginny is at school, and let her know only after the fact. This goes against my instincts, but I’m wondering if it would be best for her.

I should add that a lot of her personal identity appears to be tied to having a dog. (When the first one died, one of the things Ginny said was “But I have two dogs! I’m the girl with two dogs!”) She has made the connection that Sunny is old and will one day die, and she has expressed the concern that when that happens we will “just be three people living in a house with no dog.” (We love dogs, so there will be another one eventually, although we do not want to rush that decision.)

I don’t know if it’s relevant, but Ginny was adopted as an infant and is aware of her adoption. She has always struggled with wanting to keep things “forever”—even inanimate objects. She was distressed when my car had to be left at the mechanic’s overnight. And when we’re out shopping, she will form an immediate attachment to a toy we aren’t going to buy and worry that it needs a home—and she can only leave it at the store if she gives it a hug and tells it goodbye. Doesn’t this suggest that she needs the chance to say goodbye to Sunny?

—Dealing With Way Too Much Death

Dear DWWTMD,

First things first: Every child at some point realizes that their mother is going to die someday and freaks out. Classic fairy tales (and Disney cartoons) are supposed to be able to help children work out their feelings about this. (Bruno Bettelheim, among others, has written whole books about it.) I’m sure many children do experience this much lower-level trauma through Bambi’s mother’s or Simba’s father’s deaths, etc., but because I too had a child who found these narratives unbearable at your daughter’s age, I know firsthand that this doesn’t work at all for supersensitive children.

And you have one of these. I don’t know if it will make you feel any better to hear that my daughter, who is my biological child, also worried when she was Ginny’s age about what would become of the lonely toys left in the store … and the hat she’d accidentally left overnight at a friend’s house, and the lone sliver of soap I tried to discard, and the hurt feelings of any stuffed animal of hers that she forgot to say goodnight to. As an adult she has (mostly) grown out of this sort of thing, but she is still an unusually sensitive person (for better or worse).

I tell you all of this because while death is hard for any child, I do think Ginny may be having a harder time than most (and I don’t think there’s any reason to assume this has anything to do with her being adopted). It wouldn’t hurt to have her see a therapist (honestly, it never hurts to see a therapist) who specializes in treating children, just to see if there’s anything going on beyond what meets the eye. Meanwhile, of course she has made the leap to your death and is going through a period of worrying about it. (Just wait till she makes the next leap—to her own death. That’s coming, too.) Like everyone, she will work her way through this: We all walk around knowing that everyone we love is going to die, and we all find ways to live with that knowledge.

As far as Sunny the dog is concerned, since Ginny has already figured out that “Sunny is old and will one day die,” it seems she is preparing herself for this. She is even trying out the scenario that’s ahead: three people and no dogs in your household. I don’t think this means that her identity is unusually, worrisomely tied up with being the girl who has dogs; I think she is narrating her own life to you (and to herself), figuring things out. I also don’t think she will be any more devastated by Sunny’s death than she was by the others’—which is to say, she will be devastated, as we all are when we suffer a loss, but she will recover. She’s learning the hard lesson everybody learns, which is that nothing and no one lasts forever. As I say, this may be a particularly bitter pill for her—but that doesn’t mean she won’t be able to swallow it.

As to your mother’s advice: I’m with her. I think the act of saying goodbye to a pet who is going to die soon is too complex for a 4-year-old. You should not lie to your child, but a simple, “Ginny, I’m so sorry, but we lost Sunny today” is an appropriate thing to say. It’s one thing for a child to learn that loved ones die; it’s next-level to ask them to understand why we sometimes make the decision to let them go ourselves. I’d save that conversation for when she’s older. And for what it’s worth, I don’t think not having had the chance to say goodbye to Sunny is going to be the hardest part for her.

If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have always loved to travel, on small and large trips. When my child was little, we went on as many trips as we could afford, which wasn’t many, but I always looked forward to them and planned them way in advance. Now my son is a 13 … and he hates traveling. He doesn’t find anything fun about being in a new place or seeing new stuff right now. Even on a long weekend, he makes us all miserable by complaining about everything and nonstop asking if we can go home yet. I don’t want him to be unhappy, and I don’t want to grit my teeth through something that should be fun, but I feel stapled to the ground. Should I give up on this until he’s old enough to stay alone, or try to change his mind? Traveling without my wife isn’t fun for me, so I don’t want to leave them both behind. We don’t have any relatives to leave him with.

—Grounded

Dear Grounded,

After 13 years, surely it isn’t news to you that being a parent means sometimes making sacrifices for the sake of our children? You’re not going to “change his mind.” He might feel differently about travel when he’s older; he might feel differently about travel now if it weren’t with his parents. (He is definitely at an age when a long weekend with his parents might feel like torture.) I realize I’m a big-picture gal, and this sometimes drives people crazy (not just people who read this column, but my IRL family and friends), but it doesn’t seem to me that it would be that awful to wait a couple of years before resuming your happy-go-lucky traveling ways—by then he can be left alone for a long weekend. And as he grows up, which is happening as I type, you’ll be able to be away longer. And of course once he leaves for college or otherwise moves out and begins his adult life, you and your wife will have the rest of your lives to travel to your heart’s content, whenever and for as long as you like.

In terms of long weekends, though, if you really cannot bear to go two or three years without a getaway with your wife, and you have no family or family friends who might be glad or at least willing to host your son for a few days, doesn’t your son have any friends he might be able to spend a weekend with once in a blue moon? Doesn’t he sometimes go on sleepovers? Couldn’t one be extended for an extra night or two?

The last thing I want to say about this may be even more infuriating than my suggestion that you sit tight for a couple of years. And that’s to wonder aloud, in regard to your confession (?) that traveling without your wife isn’t fun for you, if you might not need to grow up a little too?

Dear Care and Feeding,

I live about five hours from my best friend. We are both single women, and she recently gave birth to twins she had on her own with donor sperm. Before the babies were born, I told her I wanted to visit once they arrived and asked her to let me know when she felt ready for visitors. She responded immediately and said to come any time after the first week. I suspected that would still be too soon, but we tentatively discussed me coming for a three-day weekend when the babies would be around 3 weeks old. As the weekend approached, she posted on social media about friends who came to spend the night and help her with the babies, so I figured she might be up for a visit from me after all. But when I reached out to confirm, she told me not to come because the babies (and she) weren’t sleeping and she didn’t think I’d have a fun visit. I assured her that I wanted to visit to help, not to have fun, but I didn’t push it. Since then she has posted on social media about other friends coming to stay and helping her with the babies. I’m extremely hurt that she rejected my help but accepts it from others. I feel like I can’t talk to her about it without making this about me and my feelings, when she’s the one who’s going through a thing. One friend advised me to just tell her that I’m coming to visit and show up to help, but I’m deeply uncomfortable with that option. I don’t want to ask to visit and be hurt again if she says no, but I also feel like if I wait for an invitation, I’ll never meet her babies. What do I do?

—Childless Wonderer

Dear CW,

I don’t know why—and you’ll never know either if you don’t ask, I guess—but your friend does not want you to visit. You’ve made it clear that you want to be there; she’s made it clear that she would not welcome a visit from you right now. You don’t mention whether the other friends she’s had as visitors are parents themselves. If they are, it’s quite possible that she wants only visitors right now who have experience with babies, who can provide hands-on help and advice of a type you can’t. But in any case, you should certainly not just “show up” (that is terrible advice—you are quite right to be uncomfortable about it!) and you shouldn’t ask again, either. The question to ask, point-blank, is why she doesn’t want you there. That is, if the possibility I’ve just suggested is clearly wrong, and if you have searched your memory and mind and heart and cannot think of a single reason she might feel that having you there at this stressful, demanding time might seem like too much for her. Is there anything in your history that suggests she would feel she had to take care of you? Or that if you’re not having “fun” you won’t be happy? Or that you are not in fact “best friends” (or, rather, that she’s yours but you’re not hers)? If the honest answer to all of these questions is hell no, then ask her. Sure, this conversation will be about you and your feelings. And yeah, she may be unhappy about you asking her to consider your feelings when she’s got so much on her plate. And—most important of all—you need to be prepared to hear something you don’t want to hear, and that you will hurt. Even more than you are now.

—Michelle

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