Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Helping a Grandchild Deal with the Death of a Pet

My son, Mark, and his wife, Angela, are parents to our granddaughter, Cindy, age six. My husband and I live near them and we spend a lot of wonderful time together. We all get along just fine, but I do see a situation brewing that is of concern to my husband and me.

Mark and Angela’s 12-year-old golden retriever, Duke, has lived with them since he was a puppy. Recently Duke has had a series of medical problems that are getting worse and causing him pain and suffering; the vet is saying he will soon need to be put down.

Angela is preparing Cindy for this sad event by telling her that Duke will soon be going to a special place in heaven just for dogs, he’s going to be so happy there, and that Cindy will join him in heaven when she dies.

Cindy is crying a lot saying she doesn’t want Duke to die, she doesn’t want him to go to doggie heaven and she doesn’t want to meet him there when she dies. She hasn’t as yet directly asked my husband and me what we think about Duke’s impending death, but we are sure this conversation is coming soon.

We don’t share Angela’s beliefs about an afterlife and we don’t want to pretend we do, but we also don’t want to contradict what Angela is telling Cindy. Mark is not religious and does not participate in Angela’s church activities, which seems acceptable to both of them. Any suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

I think you are wise to prepare how you will communicate with your granddaughter about the loss of her dog. If you have discussions with Cindy, I understand your need to be true to your thoughts and beliefs about death and dying without in any way calling into question what Cindy’s mother is telling her. To find this balance, I am going to suggest you have on hand to read to Cindy three books that approach death in different ways – these are books that don’t compromise your beliefs about death, and I think they might be acceptable to Angela.

The first is Lifetimes, The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen. They present basic information about living things: “There is a beginning and an ending for everything that is alive. In between is living . . . Nothing that is alive goes on living for ever . . . How long it lives depends upon what it is and what happens while it is living.” This message is reinforced with beautiful illustrations and examples about plants, birds, trees, insects, sea creatures, and people. Written for young children, it is an unsentimental, straightforward, fact-based explanation of the “lifetime” of all living things.

When a Pet Dies, by Fred Rogers (of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) comprises beautiful photographs of various family members interacting with a child who has lost a pet. The child asks, “What is dying?” He is told: “One thing we know about dying is that it isn’t like going to sleep. When something alive goes to sleep, it can wake up again. When a pet dies, it isn’t alive anymore, so it can’t wake up again. A pet that dies stops breathing and moving…” The story then talks about feelings of hurt, sadness and anger and ends by saying, “Happy times and sad times are part of everyone’s life. When a pet dies, we can grow to know that the love we shared is still alive in us and always will be.” Mr. Rogers’s approach is forthright and direct, yet gentle and kind, and in tune with young children’s sensibilities and emotions.

The third book, When Someone Very Special Dies: Children Can Learn to Cope with Grief, by grief counselor and art therapist Marge Heegaard, is for children 6 to 12. It allows a child to tell his/her personal story of loss and grief through the use of symbols, lines, shapes, and colors, while being guided through six main concepts:

1. Change is a part of life

2. Death is the end of living

3.  Living means feeling

4.  Feeling better

5.  Sharing memories

6.  I’m special too.

The back-cover endorsements include a rabbi and a minister, as well as a pediatrician, two educators and a social worker.

I am grateful to Ms. Heegaard for granting me permission to share with my readers her comprehensive guidelines, “How Adults Can Help Children Cope with Death and Grief.” (To read the guidelines and see a list of Ms. Heegaard’s 21 books for children that deal with loss, grief, divorce, feelings, accepting differences, developing self control, managing anger, and building character, click here.)

None of these three books directly deals with what happens to Duke after he dies, but rather, they provide ways for you to present and discuss the topic of death with Cindy. My suggestion is that you, your husband, Angela, and Mark talk together now about how you each plan on talking to Cindy about Duke’s death. This would be an opportunity for you to present any books you’d like to read to Cindy and explain your reasons for picking each one.

It is also a good time for the four of you to talk about how you’d like to respond to Cindy if she questions what happens to Duke after he dies. Perhaps the four of you can agree that although it is known what happens to Duke’s remains from a scientific perspective, it is not known definitively if there is any kind of an afterlife, and that is why people have different beliefs. Angela believes there is an afterlife and her opinion is to be respected. You and your husband do not believe in an afterlife and your opinion is to be respected as well. (It is not clear how Mark will express his beliefs.)

Perhaps the four of you can agree to a basic message to communicate to Cindy about her process of growing up, such as, she will think and learn more, she will have lots of different experiences, and she will form her own opinion on what happens to a pet or person after death. That’s an important part of being a person: we think, learn, and seek answers to complicated questions about life and death that give us peace and comfort.

Cindy can understand that each person has to work this out for himself/herself. If you, your husband, Angela, and Mark are comfortable with your beliefs and show respect for and acceptance of each other’s beliefs, even if they differ, this will go a long way to help Cindy deal with Duke’s death and other deaths she will face in her lifetime.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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