Our family dog Sadie passed away this week, and my two daughters are handling it very differently. My 10 year old is completely beside herself, and my 5 year old doesn’t really seem to quite understand what’s going on. She’ll ask us questions like, “But where is Sadie now?” and “Why can’t Sadie come back?” I feel like I keep going in circles with my answers. A little help would be nice.
Mother-to-mother: First and foremost, I am so very sorry to hear about your family’s loss. Pets really do become family members, and when they die it can be unbelievably painful. It can become even harder when trying to help your children process what has happened in a way they can understand. The questions your youngest daughter has asked reminds me of myself when I was a child and my goldfish died. (Please note that I am not trying to compare or equate the emotional bond felt for a beloved family dog with a goldfish).
The story goes a little like this:
When my dad tells the story, he says he didn’t know what to tell me because he, “Didn’t want me to try to get to heaven through the toilet, but also didn’t want me to think my goldfish wasn’t going to heaven.”
So he just told me, “Not quite, honey.”
“Not quite, honey” left a lot of room for five year old me’s interpretation. So being the early 90’s Roman Catholic child I was, I came up with my own wildly imaginative and slightly crazy way that my fish got to heaven.
It went a little like this:
(Please excuse my horrendous photo shop job, and proceed to start singing the Mario theme song in your head)
First stop: Mario helping Mr. G. Fish navigate through the underground tunnels
Then grabbing a quick slice with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the sewers
After lunch, slamming an ice cold Ecto Cooler with Slimer
And finally, tunneling up to the pearly gates of fish heaven
So to avoid our kids thinking for years that their deceased pets are crossing the River Styx with the help of Mario, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Slimer… What do we say? How exactly do we say it?
On the developmental side of things: To start this answer, I want to first acknowledge that grief can be a fluid emotion that may change over time, as well as resurface in a variety of ways as time presses on. What I mean by this is that you and your children may experience grieving the loss of Sadie differently in different ways over time. Everyone grieves in their own way based on their cultural beliefs; which can influence what we decide to tell, or not tell our children. At bare minimum I think it’s important to be aware of how children developmentally may understand death, regardless of how a caregiver decides to respond to addressing death. To help try to understand what your children could be going through currently (or potentially experience in the future), let’s take a look at how children typically understand the concept of death.
According to Rollins, Bolig, & Mahan’s, Meeting Children’s Psychological Needs Across the Health-Care Continuum, this is a child’s understanding of death, by age.
0 to 3 Years old
Understanding of death: Children this age typically can not comprehend death, but they can see that their caregiver(s) and/or siblings are upset. They may also notice that something or someone is missing.
Potential behaviors: Irritability, change in eating and/or sleeping patterns. Acting out death, or “playing dead.” Children learn about and understand their world best through play, so though it may seem morbid or strange- I assure you it is completely normal and healthy behavior.
Language: It might be really hard and can feel uncomfortable, but it is critical to use the words “dying”, “death” and “died” with children of this age. Using terms such as, “passed away”, “went to sleep”, or “gone” can be confusing to a child this age, because they may interpret those phrases as, “Well I go to sleep at night, will I die if I go to sleep?” or “One time the dog was “gone”, but he came back!” You could say, “Sadie was very, very old and her body could not work anymore, she died.” To explain what the words “dying, death, and died” mean you could try using more concrete explanations such as, “Someone who has died does not eat or drink anymore. They do not move, and they do not hear, see, or feel anything.”
Ways to help your child: Try to be consistent with typical routines to provide a continuing sense of stability. Help children to put names to the emotions they are feeling, and encourage them to talk about and express those feelings in appropriate ways.
3 to 5 Years old
Understanding of death: Children at this age may view death as only temporary or reversible. Magical thinking may lead to feelings of guilt or partial responsibility for the death, (i.e. “I yelled at Sadie yesterday, and now today she’s dead! It’s my fault she died!”)
Potential behaviors: Children in this age range may become worried about their own body/well being, exhibit signs of regression (wetting the bed, becoming clingy, acting younger than they are), feel confused and/or guilty regarding the death, as well as act out death or scenes of death during play. Children at this age may go from sad/upset to cheerful and playing quickly, this is normal behavior!
Language: Use the same language you would with a 0-3 year old. Make sure to clarify any magical thinking, and answer questions honestly. (i.e. “Where is Sadie now? Why can’t she come back?” You could say, “Sadie was very old and her body stopped working. She died, and we are all very sad and will miss her so much. When you die and your body stops working and we_(fill in the blank with what your culture does, burial cremation, etc)_. That is why she can’t come back.”
Ways to help your child: Reinforce that feeling and expressing emotion is healthy and normal (we can cry when we are sad, we can throw a ball hard when we are angry). You can provide creative outlets for emotions or questions to arise, art is a great medium for this. Reading developmentally appropriate stories may help as well, some of my favorites are: When Your Pet Dies: A Healing Handbook for Kids or for when a person dies, When Someone Very Special Dies: Children Can Learn to Cope with Grief.
6 to 9 Years old
Understanding of death: This age range is when children are beginning to be able to understand the concept of death. They may believe that death is contagious or something they can “catch.“ Children in this age range may be uncomfortable to openly express how they are feeling. Now that the child may have a baseline understanding of death, they might begin to worry, or express worry that important people to them (family members, siblings) could die too. It is typical that children in this age range believe that if they “behave better” or “make a wish” someone will not die.
Potential behaviors: Children in this age range may appear outwardly as if they don’t care, but are actually feeling upset on the inside. They may begin to act out at home or in school, and use denial as a coping mechanism. It is still normal to see these children playing games about death.
Language: Help your child explore their feelings by asking open-ended questions such as, “What do you think about X?” or “How does X make you feel? Can you tell me more about it?” Continue to answer questions they ask honestly, and keep your ears open for any “questions within a question” your child may ask. (i.e. “When will you die?” What the child may be trying to say is: “I’m wondering if I will always be safe and taken care of.” or “Does it hurt to die?” What the child may be trying to say is: “I’m wondering if my pet/person who died is or was in pain.”)
Ways to help your child: Listen closely to what your child is saying or asking, and try to determine what information they are truly seeking. Continue to use creative outlets for feelings and emotions such as art, or reading books. Continue helping the child identify and label their emotions. (i.e. Your child might say, “I don’t get why she had to go!” You can respond, “What I think I’m hearing you say is that you are feeling confused about why Sadie died. Is that how you’re feeling?”)
9 to 12 Years old
Understanding of death: Children in this age range typically accept death as being final, and can understand that one day they too will die. They may begin to develop a personal fear of dying. Children in this age range may be interested in the details of the death, this is typical developmentally appropriate behavior.
Potential behaviors: Children in this age range may try to put on a front of having a “thick skin” or try to “laugh it off” to appear more “adult like.” They also could have the complete opposite reaction and openly express their sadness and/or anger.
Language: Provide honest developmentally appropriate details if the child expresses that they want to “know what happened.” For example, you could respond, “She died from a heart attack. A heart attack is when the heart stops working because it can’t pump blood to the rest of the body.” Use open ended questions to probe for thoughts, feelings and emotions from the child that they may not otherwise offer up.
Ways to help your child: Encourage children to participate in creative expressions of feelings through music, art, writing etc. (i.e. creating a scrap book of your family member or pet, ornament, hand prints/paw prints etc.) If they have an interest in seeking a support group or peer-to-peer connection, help them find the right one for them. Decide together if there are any family traditions or rituals that you want to put into place. (i.e. celebrating the deceased’s birthday, taking flowers, treats or balloons to the cemetery etc.)
13+ Years old
Understanding of death: Teenagers have an adult conception of death, but their ability to cope with the loss depends on a multitude of factors. (Emotional and developmental age of the teen, available social supports, the relationship the teen had with the deceased, and previous experiences with death). Teenagers are capable of having strong philosophical views, and generally tend to have questions about the existence of an afterlife.
Potential behaviors: Teenagers may be prone to be more moody and irritable. They may have a higher chance of engaging in impulsive risk-taking behaviors such as drinking, drugs, or self-harm. Teens also may act more rebellious and test their limits, which could be harder for caregivers to curb, as they may be grieving as well. Some teenagers may rely more heavily on their peers for support, rather than their family.
Language: Treat teenagers as adults when it comes to sharing information, responsibilities and respecting their privacy. Allow teens to make informed choices.
Ways to help your child: Allow for informed participation, encourage peer support, and promote the same creative outlets previously mentioned.
According to Mark W. Speece, PhD., There are three factors a child must understand before they truly “grasp” the complete concept of death:
- Non-functionality– Understanding that the body’s internal and external functions have stopped working, and will not work again. (Heart stops beating, lungs stop breathing, brain stops thinking)
- Universality– Death is universal, all living things will one day die; including themselves
- Causality– Understanding of the concept that internal and external events may possibly cause death
I hope this helped a little bit, death is an extremely complicated and unique experience for every person, family and child. Developmentally appropriate honesty is the best policy, even if it’s you saying, “You know what honey, I don’t know.” If you (or any readers) have extra questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments section.