Death of a Much Loved Family Pet: Telling the Toddlers
When we started Five Little Stars at the beginning of December 2016, between us we had 5 Little Stars: 4 children and I had the most beautiful cat called Malcolm. He was a mixture between a British blue and a Persian - exquisite looking, with a gentle and very laid back personality, entirely tolerant of small people, and loved dogs (it was quite amusing as he would shamelessly flirt with my parents labradoodle). I grew up, and my parents still live, in the British countryside, surrounded by farms. We have had all manner of animals/pets so I like to think I have a fairly pragmatic attitude towards animals dying as I've seen and dealt with enough of it over the years. This said, it still always makes my heart break a little when those fluffy ones who become family members leave us.
A week before Christmas Malcolm died, suddenly and unexpectedly, age 5 1/2. We had bought him about a year after we had moved in together, he had been with us during our wedding, first child, move to France and then our second child. He had definitely used up some of his lives when he was hit by a car and then survived (expensive) complex orthopaedic hip surgery when he was about 2, but he should have had many more cat lives remaining. He was far far too young to leave us, he was supposed to be a part of our family for many more years.
On the Saturday he had been fine, I have happy simple memories of both children playing with him whilst he remained his usual tolerant and affectionate self. On Saturday night I was assembling some Christmas presents in the spare room, and unusually Malcolm had taken residence in the bathroom, on a warm spot (it's where the underfloor heating is the most effective in the house). Before I went to bed I let him out for his business, back in again and locked up. Unbeknownst to me he must have snuck back into the bathroom over night, or maybe he did the following morning.
This was the end of a particularly testing week for me, myself and my babies had all had the flu at the same time, and my husband had been away on business. I barely coped. I have a huge feeling of regret that Malcom really got very little attention from me in his last week, he was fed and watered (from the tap because my husband was away!) and I was aware of him being around, but had I known what was going to happen I most certainly would have spent more time focused on him.
On Sunday I don't remember seeing Malcolm during the day, but in the evening, after my husband had got home and the kids were in bed, I went into the spare bathroom and found him lying on the bathroom mat on the warm floor again facing away from me. "Come on Malcolm" I said giving him a gentle nudge with my toe...nothing. I tried again. The realisation of what had happened hit me like a punch. I yelled for my husband and he came running. I left the room and sat on the sofa and sobbed and sobbed, hysterically, my predominant thought running through my head being of guilt; I must have let him down and I hadn't been paying him much attention all week. I haven't cried like this for many years, I am certain it was the shock that caused it, my tears were completely uninhibited.
My husband just held me for a while and then we went to see Malcolm again. He looked calm and peaceful and just like himself, but he had a bit of blood coming out of his nose and was stiff. I said goodbye. We wrapped him up in the fluffy bathmat he had lain on, put him in a box and took him into the basement.
Then I wanted to understand why. It didn't make sense. I turned to Dr Google and researched what were the most likely reasons for sudden and unexpected young cat death in this manner. It would seem I am far from the only person to have had this particular little tragedy befall a feline family member, and I concluded it was likely either a cardiac event, or he had eaten a mouse that had been poisoned. I ran my theory's past the medical members of my family (albeit slightly outwith their specialism) and they thought both sounded plausible.
Then my mind turned to how we were going to tell the children. This was their first real experience of death. The boy is nearly 3, and the girl 18 months. Their understanding was bound to be limited, but they would miss their fluffy buddy. I felt ill equipt but desperate to get it right. I wanted death to be understood and respected. So the following morning I again turned to Google for advice. I spent almost a whole morning reading articles on line, from a whole host of sources; bloggers, vets, psychiatrists. My head was spinning. I ordered my thoughts, made arrangements for taking Malcolm's body to a local crematorium that afternoon, and prepared myself. I'm going to summarise below in a point by point list, what I learnt from my research that morning:
- Be factual, honest and keep it simple. Don't use vague adult phrases like "passed away" or "gone away", or "no longer with us". Say the pet has "died" and talk about it's "death" (but use these words gently). Particularly with pre-school age children, emphasise that this means the pet will not come back. Help them with this concept: using a ruler to help compare the length of a pet's life (an inch) to a human's (a foot).
- Try not to downplay it. For many children the loss of a pet is their first experience of death and often they will regard the loss of a family pet as the loss of a friend. Offer sympathy.
- Be available to talk and answer questions. Depending on age and personality, there may be lots of questions straight away, or they may come out slowly over hours, days or weeks. Answer everything as truthfully but in an age appropriate way.
- Let your emotion show (to a sensible point) and share your grief.
- Say goodbye.
- Remember - draw pictures, look at photographs and share memories.
- Don't replace swiftly - whilst this may distract or ease your child's hurt, it is important not to make it seem like the pet is simply replaceable.
Armed with all of this information and shortly before we were due to leave for the crematorium, I sat down with the children to have a little chat about Malcolm. To be honest most of it went over the girl's head. At 18 months old she repeated the word "cat" a lot in the conversation, and when I explained we were now going to say goodbye to Malcolm, she said "bye bye cat" then pointed at the television and asked for "Peppa Pig". The boy however, at nearly 3, was watching my reaction carefully. When I got a little upset he pulled a sad face and said he felt sad too. He offered me a cuddle. At the end he said "we get a new cat now mummy" and when I explained we couldn't just replace Malcolm and it was ok to feel sad and right that we take a little time to stop feeling so sad, he looked very pleased with himself as if he had figured out the solution and said cheerfully "ok mummy, we get a dog and it make you happy again".
We are not religious and so I discussed with my husband what we would say happened after death. We are fortunate with the ages of our children that questions would be limited. We were both keen to keep it factual. My explanation was inspired by a book, The Paper Dolls (by Julia Donaldson). In this book a little girl makes some paper dolls with her mother, they have adventures, but at the end a little boy snips them all up and they are no more. But the paper dolls sing a song about how they will go into the little girl's memory and stay there forever. There's more detail of course in the book but it is a lovely sentiment and one that my children are very familiar with. I used this analogy and the boy really seemed to get it. When we got into the car to go to the crematorium, he suddenly said "Malcolm is with the kind granny and the tiger slippers" (these are some of the other things that went into the little girl's memory along with the Paper Dolls). It choked me up a little, "yes baby, that's exactly where Malcolm has gone and that's where he will stay forever, in your memory".
At the crematorium in the waiting room we found a book and looked through it together, there was a picture of a cat that looked very like Malcolm. The girl shrieked with joy and pointed at it, the boy wanted to give it a kiss. My husband opened Malcolm's box so we could see him one last time, we all waved goodbye and he was handed over.
When we got home we looked at some photographs of Malcolm together. The boy seemed anxious that I be happy rather than focusing on how he felt. He has mentioned him a couple of times since, unprompted, and keeps matter of factly blurring out, "Malcolm is dead". For his age this is all probably quite normal. The girl noticed that Malcolm's food bowls had gone the following day, announced this fact with a point and "gone". She did get a "pet cat" teddy to look after with all the accessories for Christmas, and completely dotes on it. She seems to be quite happily tottering through life now without Malcolm, likely as most 18 month olds would.
So that's that. Malcolm was really my cat and I think I'm the one that misses him the most now. All the research, focusing on the kids and the practicalities of disposing of the body, were all a welcome distraction in the few days post-mortem. Now I'm just left feeling a little bit sad over Christmas. It's all a shame, but it's the circle of life, and I'm so pleased Alison and I attributed our "5th little star" to him, as he will always be at the fore of my memory when I blog.
P.s. My approach was very much toddler focused, but here is some information about other ages I read about during my research, because different children of different ages need different approaches as their understanding deepens overtime. Also different children will have had different experiences with death, you may have spoken about it before and they may have seen things on television.
- Under 2: children will take the lead from adults around them about how to feel and respond to a pets death. They will pick up any stress felt by others, no matter what the cause.
- 2-5: at this age children do not understand the permanence of death. They will think it can be reversed. They will miss their playmate, and a 4 year old may worry that they wished it to happen if, for example, they hoped for a fun young pet rather than an old sick one.
- Younger children's behaviour may regress (e.g. thumbsucking/bed wetting).
- 5-9: at this age reassurance may be needed that the child is not to blame in any way. Imaginations may work on overdrive, and whilst they do understand the permanence of death better now, they may believe it can be bargained with or defied.
- 10 and up: these children understand that death is inevitable, but may still experience guilt. They may develop a fascination and curiosity for the details surrounding death, what happens to the body and dying itself, and they may have a lot of questions. Answer as truthfully as you can, but sensitively. Older children may become quiet, withdrawn, schoolwork may suffer. Be aware of how they are feeling and offer support.
- Like adults, be aware that older children will probably go through the well established stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, guilt, depression and acceptance.
- Children may worry and reason that if their pet can die, others may die also. You need to help your child feel secure by explaining that it is very unlikely and maybe you could reassure them that there will always be someone to look after them if something was to happen.