Parenting

Ask Scary Mommy: Our Family Dog Is Dying -- How Do I Tell The Kids?

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Ask Scary Mommy is Scary Mommy’s new advice column, where our team of “experts” answers all the questions you have about life, love, body image, friends, parenting, and anything else that’s confusing you.

This week: how do you prepare your children for the death of the beloved family pet? Do you go all “doggie heaven” on them, or is it best to stick to the truth? Have your own questions? Email advice@scarymommy.com

Dear Scary Mommy,

Our sweet family dog, Wesley, was just diagnosed with a terminal tumor. Given the gravity of the situation, we don’t want to risk it rupturing or causing him any more pain than it already has. We’re lucky enough to be able to make the decision to put him down and have a few days to prepare for it. Our children are going to be absolutely devastated — we’ve had Wesley since before they were born. They’re currently 5 and 7, and I don’t know how to handle breaking the news. We’re not religious, so I feel like “doggie heaven” would be completely lost on them. How can we tell them what’s going to happen to poor Wesley without freaking them out?

Oh, I’m so sorry. Having to say goodbye to a pet is excruciating and never, ever gets easier. Your children will be sad, you’ll be sad, and there’s simply no avoiding grief. But there are plenty of ways to navigate through it and process it as a family.

I recently went through this very thing, and I can tell you that books helped immensely — when words fail me and I’m stumbling through an explanation, there’s usually a book out there that can do it better. That being said, many of those books surround the “doggie heaven” narrative, which is basically just a way to confuse your kids into thinking their dog is walking around happy and carefree somewhere else rather than their home — if you’re not religious (and even if you are), kids may wonder why their beloved doggie is living elsewhere. Kids are literal creatures.

The Invisible Leash by Patrice Karst does a lovely job of explaining that our pets die, but we can still hold them in our hearts and feel their presence when we’re missing them. It’s a beautiful book. Your kids might have a lot of questions while reading it, because it’s metaphorical and poetic in nature (not in its writing though, it’s very child-appropriate for sure).

What really made it sink home for my daughter was good ol’ Fred Rogers. His book, When A Pet Dies, doesn’t fluff around. It’s to the point but explained very kindly (it’s Mister Rogers, after all). Sometimes kids need that black-and-white stuff, because the nuance of death and spirituality isn’t something that comes naturally to a child. My daughter didn’t really have a grasp of what “our dog is dying” truly meant, and this book brought it home in a very healing, emotional way.

The one thing I always say — to myself and my kids — is that saying goodbye to our pets is the worst, but only because they were the best. My love to you, your children, and your sweet Wesley.