Tough questions are raised by children when a family pet dies. Jason Blake has found some helpful tip on how to deal with them, when he has to explain to his sons where the dog has gone.
First published in the 2012 Jan-Feb issue of Mother and Baby magazine. Subscribe here
Like many couples, long before we had kids, we had a dog. It was, friends and family joked, our 'trial run' for parenthood. If you can look after a dog feed it, pick up after it and stop it being run over by a car chances are you can be a parent.
We took in a young mongrel terrier that had washed up at the local RSPCA pound and gave him a home which he proceeded to trash at every opportunity. Nevertheless, we fed him and picked up after him. Granted, he was hit by a slow-moving Volvo one morning but bounced harmlessly into the gutter, not much the worse for the experience.
Parenthood, here we come! Well, not quite. We didn't have our first until the dog was nine and by then he was used to being the centre of attention. He took to snapping and growling at the young interloper on his territory.
Slowly, the dog was edged down the pack hierarchy and took up a slightly martyred position on the front porch, a place he has occupied ever since. When our second boy arrived, the dog scarcely acknowledged him (and vice-versa).
The dog is a bit of a neighbourhood fixture, it must be said, as scrubby-looking old dogs often are. But now he's half-blind, semi-deaf, largely incontinent and has developed an age tremble.
He falls over when walking around corners, sometimes has to be carried up the hill or the porch steps. Inevitably, the time is coming for the family dog to, er… go.
"Where's he going, Dad?" I can hear plaintive little voices even now. To the Home for Old Dogs? To the Big Pound in the Sky? To the local vet clinic for a lethal injection of barbiturates, followed by cremation courtesy of the local council? It's a tricky one. After all, this isn't just the "putting to sleep" of a pet. This is opening the conceptual door to the idea that all life, inevitably, ends in death.
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According to my vet, the best thing to do is be honest. Kids always understand more than we give them credit for, she advised. If you can handle it calmly and deal with any sadness in a healthy and thoughtful manner, the children will follow your example. If a parent is hysterical, the child will react likewise.
According to child psychologists, children under two respond to the death of a pet (or relative) based on what they observe in others. Only when the child is much older, do they perceive death as something permanent.
I'll be dealing with a few emotions, too. I grew up on a dairy farm and still remember when my dad took my hopelessly ill collie, Honey, for a walk one winter morning. He came back alone and Honey was never spoken of again.
I'm trying to prepare myself for the whole possible spectrum. Like anyone dealing with a loss, kids feel a variety of emotions besides sadness after the death of a pet: a sense of loss, anger, frustration or guilt.
Dealing with all this will perhaps be one of the most valuable things we will have learned from our 'trial run' pet. In losing a loved one we'll show it's OK to feel sad, to talk about feelings, and to cry when you need to.
Jason Blake is Mother & Baby magazine's regular contributor and a stay-at-home dad of two boys Bill and Thom. Subscribe to Mother and Baby here to read more from Jason.
Do you have any tips on explaining the concept of death to a young child? Share your thoughts below.