Care and Feeding

Our Family Is About to Suffer a Heartbreaking Loss. How Do I Prepare My Child?

I just can’t see a “good” way of handling this.

Young girl playing with dog.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by FamVeld/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have an elderly dog I need to put to sleep sometime in the next couple of weeks. How should I handle this with my 8-year-old? Should I be direct and tell her I’m doing it on a certain day (which means she’ll know to say goodbye and leave for school in tears) or should I be direct and let her be there for the shot (home visit vet)? The other option is to not tell her anything and then give her the bad news when she comes home from school, and just avoid telling her it was euthanasia unless she asks. I have been preparing her for the fact that our dog could pass away at any point. She knows that her physical and mental health has deteriorated. I’m just not sure what the least traumatic way to handle this would be.

—Bad News Mama

Dear Bad News Mama,

You know, I’m not an advocate for lying to children—or for lying to anyone, for that matter—but I think there are situations when telling something less than the full truth is a kindness. And with children this young, telling “the truth” after the fact (“I’m so sorry to tell you this, sweetheart, but Lulu died today. We all knew this day was coming, and we are all so sad”) without offering details about how it happened can be more than a kindness: It can be a way of meeting your daughter where she is developmentally.

But you know your daughter; I don’t. Some children this young are ready to hear the details and in fact will press for them—they will want to know exactly what happened and how and why. My suggestion would be to start with the general and most vague of answers (“It was her time”) and see if this satisfies your 8-year-old. If she wants to know more—either in the moment or later, after she’s had a chance to think about it and returns with questions—I would tell her the whole truth.

I think our children will almost always let us know what they’re ready to hear, if only we listen closely to what they are actually asking us. And if we remind ourselves that the important thing is to do what is best for them and not what is going to be easiest for us. Which is why I think that telling her in advance what your plan is isn’t a good idea. I understand that you’re considering doing that so she will have the chance to say goodbye, but I don’t think she will suffer over that—I think that’s you projecting your own adult feelings onto her. And while I think it would be a load off your mind to tell her before it happens, and that you feel guilty about withholding this information from her, I don’t believe that either of these are good reasons to tell her ahead of time. The one piece of information I would withhold from her for a good long time is that you scheduled the euthanasia in advance. If you do end up telling her—because she asks—that you euthanized, I would simply say that you could see that the dog was suffering terribly, that it was time to let her go for her own sake, that it would have been cruel to do otherwise.

— Michelle

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