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Goodbye, Cat

"Mona's in the garden," pipes up my 3-year-old animal lover who's not been allowed to touch his best friend's cat for years. (Cats trigger his asthma.)

"Yes, she's buried in the garden," I say. He repeats. I explain that Mona died and is buried in the garden. Not sure he registers that Mona's not coming back, but that's okay.

I've been wondering how the boys would take the death of the animal that's been the closest thing to a pet they'll ever have since we gave away our own cat a couple of years ago (yep, asthma again). And so far, so good. Five-year-old now understands that people and animals die and new ones are born. (Hmmm...is that how I meant my explanation to come out?) He's also decided that our friends need to get a new cat.

Tips I've heard over the years involving pet deaths are to be honest with your child about the death, share your feelings and listen to theirs about the death and have a burial. Petplace.com also recommends telling teachers and caregivers about the death.

Have you had a sick pet or pet death in your household? How have you dealt with it?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  May 17, 2007; 6:30 AM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers , Preschoolers
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Comments


I was babysitting over a weekend when the hamster died. Boys were 5 and 9, I had no idea what the parents (not particularly religious) had ever told them about death/dying. And the ground was too frozen for any sort of burial anyways. So I punted.

We spray-painted an oatmeal box with gold paint and wrote the hamster's name and the date on the box. We wrapped him in the comics (so he'd have something to read) and then several bags before putting him in the box. I asked the kids where they thought he was and what they thought he was doing and then nodded sagely at everything they said.

The funny part was upon their return a week later, the parents wound up forgetting about the hamster coffin in the garage (I put it there after the kids went to bed), and the 5 y/o brought a family friend out to the garage in JULY!!! to show him the hamster box. Oops.

Posted by: cc | May 17, 2007 7:52 AM | Report abuse

My sister's kitten was hit by a car right in front of us, and had massive injuries including a complete opening of the abdominal wall. She died in my arms. I was only about thirteen, and we were all just devastated.

I think my parents handled it the best that they could. My dad put the cat in a box in the garage and my mom took us inside to have some tea to calm down. (I didn't find out until much later that the tea was spiked with whiskey!) We all went to bed early that night (no kidding), and the next morning, my mom let us sleep in. When we woke up, she announced that she'd called us in sick to school. We went to the pet shelter to get another cat that day.

Posted by: popslashgirl | May 17, 2007 8:30 AM | Report abuse

My sister's kitten was hit by a car right in front of us, and had massive injuries including a complete opening of the abdominal wall. She died in my arms. I was only about thirteen, and we were all just devastated.

I think my parents handled it the best that they could. My dad put the cat in a box in the garage and my mom took us inside to have some tea to calm down. (I didn't find out until much later that the tea was spiked with whiskey!) We all went to bed early that night (no kidding), and the next morning, my mom let us sleep in. When we woke up, she announced that she'd called us in sick to school. We went to the pet shelter to get another cat that day.

Posted by: popslashgirl | May 17, 2007 8:30 AM | Report abuse

A timely subject for me. We lost our 11 year old dog to Lymphoma on Monday. We'd told our 4 year old after diagnosis that he was very sick and would die. Now that he has died, she hasn't seemed to react, even though they were often together. She asked a few questions but never got upset, which has honestly been a bit difficult. Anyone having gone thru this before - is this normal for a 4 year old? I can imagine how upsetting this would be if one had lost, say, a spouse, and the child didn't appear to really, to put it bluntly, care.

Posted by: Olney | May 17, 2007 8:44 AM | Report abuse

We lost a grandparent a few years ago when my kids were around the age of five -- and I remember reading a book on the subject that said that many kids that age are just trying to understand the logistics around death-- more than the concept.

Therefore, yes, they'll ask really awful questions about bodies and coffins and where they're going to keep him until the funeral. things that to a parent or spouse who's grieving sound just devastatingly awful. but apparently, yes, it's developmentally normal for them either to seem unaffected or grossly interested in the logistics -- and this is actually their way of coping. This is what they're developmentally ready to understand.

I remember telling the kids about heaven and how grandpa's not sick anymore and how he's really happy and in the best place now. And for some reason, my kids decided there was a water park in heaven (the best place ever for them was apparently the great wolf lodge) and they asked all the relatives if grandpa was on the water slide now. One relative said that she found herself picturing grandpa in a Speedo all through the funeral. Thanks, kids.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 17, 2007 8:53 AM | Report abuse

Very timely for us, as well. OUr 12yr old dog just died a few weeks ago. My kids saw it coming - he couldn't walk, wouldn't eat. We decided to put him down, so that morning I told my kids (7 and 10) that he had to go to the vet again, but he was very sick and may not come home. They sat by him, pet him and tried to give him a treat, then said good-bye.

It has amazed me how well my kids handle death. This was not their first experience - their aunt passed away about 4 years ago, then their great-grandma passed away 2 years ago, then their grandma last summer, another pet about 5 years ago. Each time they seem to nod and process the information at first, and then a day or two later they will mention it again. We always allow them to talk about it however they want.

Sometimes they are just sad and missing them, other times they like to remember events that happened.

In fact, now when they think about any of them, they imagine all the relatives and pets playing together.

So, to answer your question, Olney, your 4 yr old seems, based on my experieince, to be having a normal reaction.

Posted by: prarie dog | May 17, 2007 9:03 AM | Report abuse

We have a dog and 2 cats, and having lost a childhood pet (beloved Sheltie) I do not look forward to the day that my kids have to go through that loss.

Last year we had the death of my FIL - grandpa. After he died my MIL gave our kids (8 and 5 at the time) his fish, the kids had helped name them - Dumb and Dumber - so they were happy to get them. 2 months later Dumber was found floating, so we decided that since it was grandpa's fish he would have a military service just like grandpa. We played taps, the Navy Hymn (grandpa was a Marine) and referred to him as Private Dumber. After the service (backyard burial) my son burst into tears - crying about Grandpa and his fish dying. We explained that Grandpa loved to swim and that he and Dumber were probably having a grand old time up in Heaven swimming. It made him feel better. I realized that crying over Dumber had more to do with Grandpa - and it broke my heart - but it also helped both kids get a little bit of that sadness out.

Dumb finally died but he did not get the military burial.

Posted by: cmac | May 17, 2007 9:04 AM | Report abuse

I have had pets all my life and it is very difficult when they die. I have pets now -all in their prime of life- and I dread the day that they will pass away.

I learned much from my pets (I thought of them more as furry, 4-legged siblings) about caring, nurturing and loving . . . and then letting go as a child. I hope my child will take away some of the same lessons I learned.

My parents did not sugar coat it when one of our cats or dogs died. Of course, I was a little bit older than toddler age. We were permitted to grieve -and did grieve- in our own way w/o judgment that we were over-reacting.

Posted by: JS | May 17, 2007 9:27 AM | Report abuse

My daughter always wanted a cat, her dad was allergic. So, once we were on our own, we tried. We got two kittens, one was "hers" one was "mine". They were very very cute. But, hers got very obviously ill. We ended up in an emergency hospital where we found out he was dying - the wet version of FIP. Never having had a cat before, this was new to us.

He had to be put to sleep. The fluids were already hindering his lungs and breathing. I asked my then about 8 year old if she wanted to be with him, and she said yes. So, I held him, she petted him as he was put to sleep. Good for him - very VERY hard for me! We then went straight to a friends house and cried our eyes out. I'm proud of her for her choice, and I'm glad we did it that way, but it was SO hard.

She still talks about Patches. She's 16 now. The other cat got a new home, and as far as we know, is doing fine.

Posted by: Single Mom | May 17, 2007 9:31 AM | Report abuse

popslashgirl

"my mom took us inside to have some tea to calm down. (I didn't find out until much later that the tea was spiked with whiskey!) We all went to bed early that night (no kidding), and the next morning, my mom let us sleep in."

Ha, ha! My mother had a "secret family recipe" for a tea & lemon cure-all that really worked. That also had a big shot of booze!

Posted by: Anonymous | May 17, 2007 9:37 AM | Report abuse

My coworker must think something is wrong, I keep laughing at nothing.

I love the ways people have talked with children about the death of beloved family members and pets.

I would also add that there are a number of good books for children. Judith Viorst's "The Tenth Good Thing About Barney" is a classic about pet death and grieving. "Losing Uncle Tim" is about a man dying of AIDS. "Everett Anderson's Good-bye" is about the death of a father. "I Had a Friend Named Peter" is about the accidental death of a child. My children really like to read the book about Peter. Hopefully they will never experience the death of a friend, but the book deals with some of the feelings people have about death, particularly the ideas children might have.

Posted by: single mother by choice | May 17, 2007 10:03 AM | Report abuse

We lost our 18 year old cat two years ago. He had been ill for a long time and the kids (at the time 8 and 5)regularly helped rehydrate him with IV fluids in the scruff of his neck (hung from the ceiling fan in the family room).

One evening it became apparent that we couldn't keep him going. I took some pictures of the three of them under the christmas tree (I know, sob). The next morning I took Chuck to the vet. He gave me some great advice; don't disrupt their day. He kept Chuck in an incubator all day and my DH and I brought the kids there after school.

We all got to hold him and say goodbye. My DH had some reservations about this, he thought it would be too emotionally intense for the kids, it certainly was for him. He left the room with our son, but my daughter and I stayed. She held the cat in her arms the entire time. I don't think this would be correct approach for every kid (or every grownup), but I think it helped her feel more in control. She was also quite proud that we let him go. She has had a few experiences with family members who refused to put down a clearly suffering animal because they couldn't bear to be parted from it.

That night we all climbed in bed together crying. We have another cat (18 now) and a three-legged dog. I swore to my husband that night, "no more pets". It was bad enough knowing that we would go through this with the cat and dog we already had.

Last year he brought home two kittens. I asked him if he realized we would be probably still have them in our sixties.

This week it looks like our old girl cat is going to go soon. I really don't want to go through this again, but I guess if I want to teach the kids about our responsbilities to animals I have to suck it up.

Posted by: HappyMom | May 17, 2007 10:05 AM | Report abuse

I use that cough medicine, too. It's the best thing about being sick!

Posted by: single mother by choice | May 17, 2007 10:09 AM | Report abuse

A month before I moved in with my partner, the elder dog in the family (a small chihuahua named Pepe) died. This was in the midle of one of the worst ice storms we've had in Arkansas in a long time, so there was little chance of burial. My partner, being ever the practical one, wrapped the dog in several layers of newspaper, then several layers of trash bags, and put it in the freezer, intending to bury it once the ground softened up.

Upon hearing of this, I insisted that the dog was out of the freezer before I moved in.

Thankfully, she took a pickaxe out back and dug a small hole for the dog - and after filling it in, put a large rock on top to prevent scavengers. I was so grateful I didn't think about what our daughter thought of the whole thing - until a few months later, when our daughter's new step-sister, who was 5 at the time, asked me when she was invited to dinner at our house what we were eating, and insisted that she wasn't going to 'eat the dog in your freezer' no matter how I cooked it.

We held a second funeral for the dog that evening with the step-sister to make sure she knew that we were really having chicken and not Pepe for dinner.

Posted by: Rebecca in AR | May 17, 2007 11:40 AM | Report abuse

My father always tried to protect my siblings and I from the death of the many dogs my family had over the years from us. I'm sure he was motivated out of the best of thoughts, but it was only a matter of time, as my sisters and I got older, until we figured it out. When out very lovable Welsh Corgie passed away when I was in my late teens, there was really no way of avoiding it.

However, the process of mourning and the decisions that came with death were a pretty eye opening and very emotionally important time for us as a family - something I wish my father hadn't tried quite so hard to keep us from when we were younger.

As a side note, if you (or your children) have allergies/asthma and you think that this precludes you from having pets other than fish, there are several so called hypo-allergenic breeds that are either hairless or have hair instead of fur (so they don't shed or have dandruff). I had a friend in college who was allergic to everything under the sun AND had bad asthma, and she had a dog. I wish I could remember now what breed it was.

Posted by: David S | May 17, 2007 12:01 PM | Report abuse

My daughters ancient (he was almost 4) hamster died right before this school year began. She was visiting her Great-Pap with her Papap and I was on travel. My poor husband had to "package" the old guy after he died in his sleep. I called my daughter the next morning (didn't want to cause nightmares) and she cried for a while with my dad. By the time she came back from her vacation, though, she was fine.
Our dog is getting up there in age and I am concerned with how that death will be handled. As an only child, my daughter considers the dog her "sister." Could be painful but it is part of life.

Posted by: 21117 | May 17, 2007 12:18 PM | Report abuse

My son was in first grade when we lost a cat. The teacher heard about it and had a special book that she kept for such events. It is actually a pretty big item for sharing. A couple of years ago we had our very old cat put down and I cried so much that the kids were taking care of me.

There is lots of interesting advise on handling such an event. I hope I don't need this advise soon! All of our pets are young

Posted by: free bird | May 17, 2007 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Our last dog died two years ago in June after a very short illness. We all knew he wasn't at all well, but had hopes that the vet would help in the morning. Unfortunately he left us in his sleep that night. At 14 it was a pretty good age, but he had been with us longer than both the children, so I was really worried how they'd react.
After a good crying session, they did manage to get themselves together and still went to school. I think they handled it better than me in lots of respects as I still cry when I think about it, and we haven't been able to face getting another dog yet even though the kids keep asking us when we can.

Posted by: Sally | May 17, 2007 1:50 PM | Report abuse

David S: Thanks for the pet suggestion. My sister-in-law keeps track of a lot of the hypo-allergenic animal breeds. She is allergic to animals, but would love to have a pet. So she tests her ability to be around them some and none of them pass her allergy test. So, they work for some lucky folks, but not others.

Posted by: Stacey Garfinkle | May 17, 2007 1:57 PM | Report abuse

I didn't have any of my own pets as a kid, so I can't speak of my own experience there.

But I think it's just good to be honest, and let the kid grieve as they will. For younger kids, they don't really get the finality of death, nor have they formed such emotional attachments that they sense a great loss from it most of the time.

I know in our family, death of all kind has always been openly and freely discussed. This helps us all mourn and prepares us for what happens. There's so many of my peers (20-somethings) who haven't had to deal with a big death yet, or had to handle preparations like that and have no idea what will be required. It's awful that most parents don't teach their kids about it just like they should every part of dealing with life.

I also like how most families become "egyptian" at pet's death- including items the pet liked and perpetuating the believe that an animal has a soul and needs to be nurtured on earth with earthly things. Very primal, very basic, very sweet.

Posted by: Liz D | May 17, 2007 2:18 PM | Report abuse

We had to put a dog to sleep. We tell the kids 6 and 4 that the dog went to heaven and they will see him one day. My four year old still cries that she misses him but feels better knowing GOD is taking care of him and her grandmother.

Posted by: pATRICK | May 17, 2007 2:24 PM | Report abuse

'I also like how most families become "egyptian" at pet's death- including items the pet liked and perpetuating the believe that an animal has a soul and needs to be nurtured on earth with earthly things. Very primal, very basic, very sweet.'
My Dad has his last two dog's ashes still, about 6 years or so after they died.
My daughter's first experience of death was when she was about two and a half and her Great Grandma died. She was fine about it but we had several months of :
Me: Great Nana is up there on that star just over there.
Charlotte: Oh. How far is it?
Me: Ever so far darling.
Charlotte: Why did she go?
Me: She was very old and wasn't well, so she had to leave us.
Charlotte: Oh. So when she's all better she'll come back again.
Very sweet, and extremely hard to explain to a child of that age really. To them if you get ill you get well again. I don't think the concept of death can really be grasoed at that age. Hence the star thing!

Posted by: Sally | May 17, 2007 2:29 PM | Report abuse

'As a side note, if you (or your children) have allergies/asthma and you think that this precludes you from having pets other than fish, there are several so called hypo-allergenic breeds that are either hairless or have hair instead of fur (so they don't shed or have dandruff). I had a friend in college who was allergic to everything under the sun AND had bad asthma, and she had a dog. I wish I could remember now what breed it was.

Posted by: David S | May 17, 2007 12:01 PM'

I think poodles are meant to be a very low to nil asthma risk.

Posted by: Sally | May 17, 2007 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Liz D

"But I think it's just good to be honest, and let the kid grieve as they will"

I agree. Honesty, with children, and pretty much everthing else in life is the best way to go.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 17, 2007 2:50 PM | Report abuse

For folks with allergies, there are several breeds of dogs that don't shed. As an ashtma and allergy sufferer, I have a labradoodle. Just be careful when dealing with the "doodle" type breeds - not all of them have the coat you're looking for. Really grill the breeder about how they do their crossings. Or, get a poodle!

For what it's worth - dogs are individual, and if you have three labradoodles, one may cause issue, 2 may not. Unfortunate that there isn't any gaurantee that when you bring a dog into your home, and love them, that you can still breath when around them.

Keep the dog groomed, and clipped also.

Best of luck to all allergy sufferers who just don't feel right without the love of a pet in the house with them.

Btw, my allergist suggested a lepeord gecko to me. Oh well....

Posted by: Dog mom | May 17, 2007 3:13 PM | Report abuse

"Me: Great Nana is up there on that star just over there.
Charlotte: Oh. How far is it?
Me: Ever so far darling.
Charlotte: Why did she go?
Me: She was very old and wasn't well, so she had to leave us.
Charlotte: Oh. So when she's all better she'll come back again."

I know your daughter was only two, but using the word death to explain what happened probably would have avoided all the confusion. Saying that nana's on a star doesn't explain what really happened and why she's not coming back. By not sugarcoating, couching, or otherwise avoiding the subject of death you make it better for children to comprehend that death is a natural part of life - an important lessen for everyone.

Posted by: To Sally | May 17, 2007 5:12 PM | Report abuse

We had said that Great Nana had died, but she wanted to see where that meant she had gone. As it was the first time I'd ever had to explain to her about where we go I used a star rather than the Heaven analogy, as you just can't see that. I understand your sentiments on this but at two there is really only so much that they can make sense of. And death just doesn't mean much to them. You tell them someone has died so they won't see them any more and they just want to know where they are. And I didn't feel like explaining cremation to her then!
Now when the dog died and they're teenagers they have a much better grasp on life processes and can decide for themselves where we go to. We were able to discuss the fact we had him cremated and what that involved and they asked if ti was the same for humans and discussed the other options.

Posted by: Sally | May 18, 2007 3:15 AM | Report abuse

I don't know that adults ever understand what happens after death- it's all a matter of faith. By the time you get to that part, you've heard the stories, seen the pictures, and it's become such a part of your background knowledge that most people just act like it's "what is."

When it's really just a system of faith reinforced over time with no more substance or justification than telling a kid they go to a star.

We understand more as adults what it means when someone dies in terms of life in earth for the most part, but that's it.

Posted by: Liz D | May 18, 2007 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Do we really need to teach spelling? YES. I am a retired h.s. English teacher and dealt w/spelling (or lack of spelling sense) for years. The best explanation I have for why g.s. teachers want to dismiss it---they don't know how to teach it! In a very basic Eng. class, we went back to roots, prefixes, suffixes, adfinitum, and these kids really enjoyed learning both how to spell and how to understand word meaning. Please don't let your kids rely solely on spell check; it's lame at best, and takes the place of learning how to use their language.

Posted by: MaryS | May 30, 2007 11:47 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: puba | June 12, 2007 12:25 PM | Report abuse

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