When There's No Doggie Heaven to Fall Back On
Question: A few days ago, our family dog died. She was 16 years old and our daughter is 25 months. Dixie, our dog, died in her sleep with no clear signs of why or how she passed. When the family woke up the next morning, we thought that the dog was sleeping in the corner. After a few minutes, I went to wake up the dog and take her outside, I discovered that she was not breathing, stiff and getting colder.
After my wife and I composed ourselves, we brought our daughter in the room, explained that Dixie had died, we weren’t sure how and that she wouldn’t be there when our daughter got home from school. We had her pet the dog and say bye. We took her to school and then took the dog to our vet down the street to be cremated.
We compared Dixie dying to Bambi’s mom but we have no other analogs. We’ve looked up some books and online resources, the Ask a Mortician video about kids and death, for instance. A lot of these stress talking about the good times but given that our daughter is so young, she doesn’t remember Dixie as a vibrant dog that ran around. She remembers the dog having accidents in the house, pacing all day and sleeping. We’ve aimed to be gentle yet firm, not talking about heaven or “she’s sleeping.” “Dixie’s not with us anymore,” we say, "she died. "We’re very sad, we miss her. We can look at pictures, we can talk bout her.”
Our daughter has become even more clingy with my wife, sometimes not even letting her out of her two year old sight. Yesterday, she cried and thrashed, saying that she didn’t want to see anyone but Dixie. Everyday, she’s asked for the dog in some way. How can we better help her in this challenging time?
Answer: As someone without children, I'm the perfect person to answer this question. No, really. I have sufficient distance from parenthood to have no idea how difficult learning moments like this must be. I can be pretty detached.
Kids are curious to know how things work, death included. As the wheels turn in your daughter's head, she's very likely connecting the dots on how you, her parents, are as mortal as dear Dixie. Her little kid brain is wondering: Who will take care of me in the (extremely unlikely) event that you both die in a freak accident?
What I'm getting at here is that, while she may miss the dog and is certainly distressed by the realization that death is a real and irreversible thing, this event is probably evoking her survival instinct more than anything else. Now is the time to reassure your daughter that she will always have a guardian to watch over and love her should tragedy strike.
Once you do that, you've done all that you can. It's OK.