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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a mom of 6-year-old twins and a 4-year-old. Our dog, who is 16, has had many health issues and the time is approaching where we know we will need to let him go. We have no other pets, and while we’ve tried to prepare the kids for the fact that we’ll need to say goodbye, I’m afraid of what will happen when the day comes. Our daughter in particular seems to be trying to find solutions: “Can we buy him new medicine?” “Maybe he needs more food.” Any tips on preparing them outside the many talks we’ve had? Should the kids be there when we say goodbye, for closure, or will that just hurt them more? Also, I’m worried about my own reaction. I know I’ll be sad, I know they’ll see some tears, but I don’t want to overly worry them. Any input would be welcome!
—Time is Short but Kids are Young
In the many talks you’ve had with the children about the dog’s impending death, have you explained that his body is very, very old—that 16 is really as old as any dog can be expected to live? And that all living things have life spans (that, for example, hamsters live for no more than three years, horses for perhaps 30)? When small children are told this, they will often ask how long people live, then (and for children this young, the best answer I know is “for much longer than pets—for a very long time!”). Eventually children will want more information, of course, but at this point, as long as you make it clear (or have already made it clear) that death is a part of life, and remind them that their dog has had a long and wonderful life in your family, I wouldn’t keep talking about it unless they ask questions.
I also wouldn’t have them be present at the death—I think that’s too much for 4- and 6-year-olds. When we talk about “closure,” we often think (or just hope) that this means something hard or sad can be put away for good. But it can’t. The children will be sad. You will be sad. After the dog’s death, when the children see you being sad, it won’t harm them or worry them if you’re honest about why you’re sad. That death is a fact of life doesn’t mean it doesn’t fill us with sadness when it happens—it’s OK for them to know that, and also to know that feeling sad isn’t something to be afraid of, deny, or pretend isn’t happening. I had a lot more to say about the death of a pet in an earlier column, and I’d urge you to look at that. But the bottom line is that, as much as we would like to protect our children from loss and pain, we can’t. We can only help them through it.