Last night, I babysat for two wonderful children that I sit for regularly. Only, yesterday was different. You see, the family had just put down their beloved dog, and the children were distraught over the death of this dog, which had always been a part of their lives. The family warned me ahead of time about their loss, and gave me the opportunity to cancel, but we both agreed it might be a nice positive outlet for the children to have me come over. I was warned ahead of time the children might ask me to read them some books about pets dying, and I was prepared.
I learned about death at a young age, as my own pets and animals on our farm would die, and each death was like a knife to my chest – the most painful event my little child self could ever imagine. It was always so hard on me - when I was 10 and put down my beloved cat, Tigger, I cried for two weeks straight. With these memories in hand, I felt prepared at least with sympathy for these children and their loss.
When I arrived at the home to babysit, I was immediately aware of the discussions going on. The four year old boy ran up and told me that his dog died. The seven year old girl showed me a card a neighborhood friend had made her, on the outside it read, “I’m sorry your dog died,” and the inside said, “It’s sad your dog is dead.” The cavalier way with which death and being dead was discussed was so unlike the way many adults approach death – referring to it as a “passing” or a “loss”. It was nice in a way to hear death being called exactly what it is. So often, children get confused with death and the terms we apply to it. As a child, I was very confused when I was told we were going to put a horse to sleep. I kept wondering when the horse would wake up, until my parents realized my confusion, and explained death to me.
When it came time for me to put the kiddos to bed they each selected a couple of story books that address the death of a pet. It was very hard not to cry through these books, for they truly are sad, especially when there are red, puffy-eyed children sitting in bed beside you. Despite the melancholy atmosphere, I found it fascinating that these children wanted to hear about death, and kept selecting more books for me to read. It was as though they truly related and gained a sense of understanding about the grief they felt, and the loss of Gracie’s life from these books. I would highly recommend The Forever Dog and Saying Goodbye to Lulu for any child that is grieving the death of a pet.
"The Forever Dog" was another book we read, and my second favorite. This book not only focuses on the death of a pet, but addresses the feelings of grief you might feel - like anger and sadness - when a pet dies. The illustrations and story are both easy to relate to, and give a slightly different perspective to death. This book concludes by explaining that memories spent with a pet will always live in our hearts, long after our dogs have died.
Like the way the children discussed death, dying and being dead with those exact words – the books did not sugar coat anything. They explained how “being put to sleep” is not sleeping, but is where the dog stops breathing, his heart stops beating, and all life leaves his body. The books also explained the grieving process through the ways the main characters reacted to the deaths of their pets. The loss of a pet is usually the first experience a child has with death, and if not the first experience, it is usually one with the most impact. To have that four legged friend you’ve played with your entire life, and seen on a daily basis, suddenly gone is very difficult to comprehend. Children often don’t realize that pets have a very different life span than humans, and this complicates matters. Through my research, I’ve learned the most important thing a parent can do to help their child through this terrible time is to be completely open and honest with the child. Using words like “euthanasia” that children do not understand will only complicate things, but explaining death in a very matter of fact way will make it easier for the child to grasp what is happening.
I wish that books like these had been available to me growing up. There are now so many books to chose from that address this touchy subject, and I think they really help children understand in a way that family discussions might not.