Mon chat est mort. This is the title of the book my daughter has written and illustrated at school today. My cat is dead. Well, this should be an interesting read. I pick it up not knowing quite what to expect.
To give you a little background, we had to put our cat down when my daughter was about two and a half and her brother was a baby. We pondered how to tell her about it. Our policy with our children is always to tell them the truth at a level that they can understand, but death is a difficult concept to explain.
Often we make the choice to soften the blow in various ways. When we put the cat down, an acquaintance suggested that I tell the kids the cat ran away. Not only is this not truthful, this may lead to a child thinking that the cat will someday come back, or worse, that they did something to make the cat want to run away. Other times we use euphemisms for death like “passed away” or gone for “eternal rest”. The problem with these expressions is that young children take things very literally. They hear the word “away” and that suggests the person will come back. The word “rest” also implies something temporary. It may cause them panic afterwards if you say you’re tired and you need a rest.
Children Understand More than we Think
Children understand death much younger than we realize. When they are playing outside and they see a dead bug, they know it’s dead. They see a squirrel squished in the road and they know it’s dead. So why is it that we don’t hesitate to confirm that the bug or the squirrel is dead, but we whisper our way around telling them that grand-papa is dead?
By avoiding the subject, whispering behind their backs, and closing down a conversation when they enter the room we think we are protecting them, but all we are doing is creating fear. For young children the unknown is fearful and creating an atmosphere of secrecy contributes to that fear.
Be Honest and Genuine
So when the cat died, we told them the truth. We used the word death and explained that the cat was never ever coming back. We assured them that the cat’s death had nothing to do with them. We are not religious people but we felt that it was important for them to still have some connection to the cat, so we told them she became a star and would be shining down on us every night. Then we held our breath and waited.
The tears and the sadness came. When that happened we told our daughter that it was okay to be sad and to cry because we loved the cat. We told her we were sad and missed the cat too. We reiterated that the cat was dead and was never coming back. Over time the tears stopped and life went on.
Then about a year later my partner’s father became quite ill. He eventually was diagnosed with terminal cancer and was told he had a few months to live. We told the children the truth – that grand-papa was very very sick and that he was going to die. We dealt with statements like, “but I don’t want him to die” and questions like “why does he have to die?” We acknowledged their sadness and answered their questions as best we could. Sometimes the answer was simply “I don’t know.”
When my father-in-law died we told them he was dead and never coming back. We let them see our sadness and tears to a certain degree. While we don’t believe that hiding our tears from them is a good thing, letting them see a parent having a total melt-down is probably not good for them either, so we lived our wrenching grief in private. The one thing we didn’t do is pretend everything was fine because it quite simply wasn’t.
The Dreaded Question
Then we braced for the next inevitable question. “When are you going to die?” On the subject of death, this is likely the one question that parents fear the most. In fact, fear of this single question is likely what stops some people from mentioning the “d” word at all. How do you answer this question honestly without freaking them out? The point is, that if you avoid the question and don’t answer, that is when you are really going to scare them. So we answered as honestly as possible. We told them that we hope to live until they are much older and that we will do our best to stay healthy since that will give us the best chance to do so. Their reaction? It was a non-event. Because we didn’t make a big deal of the question or the answer they just accepted it without fear.
Our daughter has since asked if she is going to die. We again replied matter-of-factly that yes, she is going to die one day just like everyone else, but that we hope that it will be when she is very old. She took in our reply and carried on without blinking. Now of course, she has asked the same questions in many ways since then, but by consistently answering in a straightforward and honest way, I think we have demystified things for her.
So how did the cat story turn out? Well, it too was straightforward and matter-of-fact. The cat was there smiling with her and her friends, then the cat went in an ambulance and then the cat was dead and we have no more cat. Everyone was sad. Then all was good in the world. Guess we said something right along the way then.