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Loss of a Pet

How did you help your toddlers deal with the death of a pet?

Our Mommy  MD Guide’s reply: One thing that parents with pets might not think about or plan for is what to do when a pet dies. Last fall, our dog was diagnosed with osteosarcoma of the ankle. He was only nine years old. Our vet recommended no intervention because the cancer had likely already spread. It was devastating and heartbreaking. It was a daily struggle not knowing which day would be his last. Some days our dog looked like himself, happy, wagging his tail, and still begging for a walk, even though his body was ailing so quickly.

My children adored our dog. Every morning, my daughter woke up and said, “Jakey”—which was, in fact, her first word—and come downstairs to look for him. My kids always sat beside our dog, cuddled with him, watched TV with him, and even wanted him to ride in the car to pick up my son from school.

My husband and I didn’t know how to approach our dog’s illness and death with our children. We sought the advice of our vet and friends, and we searched for help online. Our vet recommended not telling the kids that our dog was sick too early. Many friends told me that I really had to keep it together because the kids would take from the experience what I did. I read on one website, “Do not tell your kids that your dog went to a farm.” That seemed like a ludicrous thing to say to my kids anyway because there was nowhere else that our dog would have wanted to be than home with us.

The night that we knew our dog had to be put down, I had my son sit in my lap. I told him that our dog was very sick. What happened next was unlike anything I had anticipated, my son started violently crying and begging me, “Please let him stay, Mom, please let him stay.” It was horrible. If there was anything I could have done to keep that dog with us forever, I would have. He was such a gift to us.

My daughter, being a toddler, was a comfort for me to have around. Despite Jake’s illness, she always treated him the same way, as if all was well, as if we weren’t worried about him.

That night after my husband and I got back from the vet, our house was silent. No one wanted to say anything.

“I miss Jake. When is he coming back?” my son asked.

In that moment, my husband and I decided that we could not have that conversation over and over, and we decided that we had to tell our children right away that he had died. I told my son a story about how Jake was walking across a rainbow bridge into Dog Heaven, and he would be watching over our family forever.

For days afterward, my son was concerned that our dog would forget about him. I had to tell him over and over that Jakey would never forget him. I told my son that I had made Jake a new collar with a picture of all of us on his tag to carry with him all the time. We made a Christmas ornament with a picture of Jake in it. We put his stocking up, and we made a photo book of him so that we can look at it. His framed photo is on the end table, and my daughter still points at it and says “Jakey” and then points at his “eyes,” “nose,” “ears,” and “mouth” because he helped her learn those words too. My son’s school librarian suggested some books to read. My son read one called Dog Heaven quietly and did not say a word about it. I am glad that he did, though, because it gave me a way to frame this sadness for him.

Losing a pet is really hard. I think knowing your belief system about what happens after death is a challenge for all adults. Knowing how to frame it for a child in a way that is palatable and not completely devastating is a serious challenge. Facing our dog’s death was one of the hardest things that I’ve had to do as a mom.

Our family got a new puppy a week after our dog passed away. His name is “Chewy” aka Chewbacca. My children love the new puppy. My daughter feels utterly comfortable around him, despite his wild puppy antics. I credit Jake with teaching her to love animals this way at such a young age.

Sigrid Payne DaVeiga, MD, a mom of a six-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter and a pediatric allergist with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, in Philadelphia, PA

The information on MommyMDGuides.com is not intended to replace the diagnosis, treatment, and services of a physician. Always consult your physician or child care expert if you have any questions concerning your family's health. For severe or life-threatening conditions, seek immediate medical attention.