Dear Care and Feeding,
My parents live four hours away, but we try to visit as often as possible with our seven-year-old daughter. We just saw them for Christmas and will be going back soon. My parents had a wonderful, sweet, friendly dog named “Coco.” My daughter adores her and spends much of every visit doting on her and playing with her. We can’t have pets of our own due to my husband’s allergies, so my daughter sees Coco as her almost-pet.
This weekend, my parents were on their deck with Coco when a neighbor’s dog got out and attacked her. It went straight for her neck, wouldn’t let go no matter what my parents did, and shook her until she was dead. My parents are still in shock and extremely upset about everything. It took them a couple days before they could even bear to go out on their deck to clean up the blood. We haven’t told our daughter anything yet.
Can we just … lie to our daughter and say that Coco died suddenly of natural causes? What happened to Coco is so gruesome, and our daughter is going to be very upset just about the death by itself. Is this the kind of thing where she’ll be traumatized and have her trust in us damaged forever when she eventually finds out the truth? Or is this the kind of thing where you should spare your child the additional pain if you can? (My dad has stitches on his hand and arm from where the attacking dog bit him too, so we’d need to come up with a lie to explain that. But I think they will go along with whatever we want to tell our daughter.)
—Dog Death Dilemma
Dear Dog Death Dilemma,
Let me first offer my condolences to your parents for losing their dog in such a tragic way. Even as a grown man, I’d be beyond devastated if another dog murdered my sweet pup, so I can get where you’re coming from in terms of considering lying to your daughter.
However, I think your daughter is old enough to know the truth. Keep in mind, she doesn’t have to know the whole truth about how the other dog went straight for Coco’s neck and wouldn’t let go. Instead, you could say something along the lines of, “Honey, I’m sorry to say that Coco was attacked by another dog and she died because of her injuries. Grandpa did everything he could to try to save her and he was bitten as well. We are all really sad about this, but we’re going to come together as a family to get through it.”
Think of it this way—your daughter would be heartbroken if she’s told the truth or a lie regarding Coco’s death, but at least this way, you won’t have to contend with the additional heartache you could cause her later on in life by finding out you lied about it.
Kids are way tougher than we give them credit for, and as much as this will hurt her, she will get through it. Spare the gory details, but definitely tell her the truth.
More Advice From Slate
I was a very angry teen. My parents were wealthy but morally bankrupt. My father got sole custody of me after my mother hit and killed a man with her car while on drugs. My impression of my stepmother at the time was that she was young and “the enemy.”