In junior high school, I learned a phrase from my English teacher that conveyed the value of simplicity: Keep it Simple, Stupid (K.I.S.S.). Keep your message short, direct, and to-the-point if you want others to understand.
To support, the K.I.S.S. theory our class was taught that the average newspaper is written at the 8th grade reading level. Wow, adults must not be much smarter than I am, is what I thought at the time. Today, I am feeling how true that is as my three-year-old daughter poses a question about death.
Last night, our elderly dog had an episode that almost sent us to the emergency vet clinic. She was having trouble breathing and has already been diagnosed with heart and trachea issues. As I sat on the couch trying to calm her down and figure out if she was in serious distress, my daughter came downstairs from her bed and saw what was going on.
“Mommy, is Lee-lee going to die?”
“I don’t know. Mommy is trying to help her calm down.”
(My daughter begins gently petting our dog.)
“If she will die, she is gone forever?” She asked.
“Well, yes, but we are going to try to help her so that doesn’t happen right now.” I answer.
I have read that until Kindergarten, kids can’t really grasp the concept of death. However, I was a bit surprised that she associated the word with “gone forever.” I don’t think she ever heard me say that. I wondered where she might have heard such a thing. It probably came from hearing a friend. Or maybe, that was how it was explained when the goldfish at school disappeared unexpectedly. I don’t really know. All I do know, is that I wasn’t quite ready to have “the talk” with her then. I was too caught up in the moment to construct the right thing to say to my toddler. I tried to just use the K.I.S.S. approach until I had more information about how to handle the situation.
This evening, I did some research on what you should say to a child about the loss of a pet. I found the information helpful, so I am passing it along. I hope I don’t need to research the “birds and the bees” talk anytime soon.
Marty Tously is a counselor with the Pet Grief Support Service. She says that a child’s ability to understand what death means depends on his/her emotional and cognitive development, but outlined the generally understood guideline of how children perceive death and dying:
Under 2: A child can feel and respond to a pet’s death, based on the reaction of those around him or her. A child picks up the stress felt by family members, no matter what the cause.
2 to 5: The child will miss the animal as a playmate, but not necessarily as a love object. They will see death as a temporary state – something like the way leaves fall off a tree in fall but grow back in the spring. As they perceive the trauma around them, however, they may regress in their behavior (e.g., thumb sucking).
5 to 9: Children begin to perceive death as permanent, but they may indulge in “magical thinking,” believing that death can be defied or bargained with. This is also the period when children recognize a correlation between what they think and what happens. For instance, a child may resent taking care of the pet and wish – however briefly – that the pet would die. If the pet then dies, the child is often consumed with guilt. Parents need to reassure children that they did not cause the pet’s death.
10 and up: Children generally understand that all living things will eventually die, and that death is total. Understanding and accepting are two different things, however. They may go through the normal stages of grief that grownups do: denial, bargaining, anger, guilt, depression and acceptance. (To learn about the stages of grief, see the story Coping with Pet Loss.) Or they may react in other ways:
Depending on the age, the child may regress (sucking their thumb or temper tantrums that they had outgrown).
An older child may withdraw from friends and family for a while. Schoolwork may suffer and they may seem uninterested in extracurricular activities.
Children may fear abandonment. If a pet can die, then they may reason that their parents could die as well.
Children often become intensely curious about death and what happens to the body. They may ask for details that you may find uncomfortable to explain. These are questions you should answer in a straightforward, gentle and careful manner.
From one mother to another, I think the most important thing I learned was that you shouldn’t tell your child that your pet “went to sleep” or “went bye bye” because it will give the impression that if the child goes to sleep or goes bye bye, he/she may also die. Remember, K.I.S.S. goes a long way. Don’t use baby talk to explain but do keep it simple.
If anyone else is going through this situation or through the death of a loved one, I suggest you read the article below.
- Singing or speaking, K.I.S.S. works every time, Christina (loispaul.com)
- K.i.s.s. (hannahjang.wordpress.com)
- Kiss the principle (thmrktngmnkys.wordpress.com)