6 things I wish I knew before I told my 3-year-old his dog died

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Parenthood is full of tough conversations, but for my wife and
me, one stands out from the pack: telling our oldest son his
dog had died.

Our son, Liam, has been lucky. In his nearly four years on
Earth he’s been blissfully unaware of death as a concept or a
reality. He understands flowers “wilt and die,” but he doesn’t
really get it. He picks flowers with reckless abandon, and has
been known to accidentally squish a worm or two when he gets
too enthusiastic.

Another pet, a goldfish, died soon after it entered our lives,
but Liam was only two and never inquired as to its whereabouts
in the weeks and months after its departure.

Tara
Sager

Liam Sager and his dog Humphrey.

All of this is typical. Liam (thankfully) isn’t old enough to
grasp the permanence of death.

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And that’s what made this conversation even tougher. We didn’t
just need to tell Liam that his dog wouldn’t be running in the
park with him anymore. We also needed to make the first
pinprick in our son’s bubble of innocence.

Looking back on the conversation, here’s what I wish we knew
before we spoke with Liam:

1. How much he’d understand

Even though we hadn’t told Liam just how ill Humphrey was —
he’d been battling lymphoma and its associated maladies for a
year — he could sense something was up. He knew Humphrey was
going to the vet frequently and that he “didn’t feel well.”

Liam was gentler with Humphrey in the final weeks and months,
and often parroted the language adults used around him. “Oh,
poor Humphrey,” was a common refrain Liam shared. He noticed
the decrease in Humphrey’s appetite and the increase in
Humphrey’s accidents, and was often our helper when it came
time to clean up.

Tara
Sager

Humphrey, near the end.

When we spoke with Liam he understood more than we expected. He
knew he couldn’t say goodbye to Humphrey, knew he wasn’t well,
and it made him sad. I’m still not sure how I held it together
when he said he wanted to play with Humphrey “one more time.”

2. How little he’d understand

At the same time, Liam had trouble grasping a lot of what we
told him.

We began our conversation with a very blunt question, the
intention of which was to assess Liam’s understanding of the
situation.

“Liam, Humphrey died today. Do you know what that means,” my
wife, Tara, asked him.

Liam thought for a moment or two, and looked puzzled. He
wrinkled his nose, thought some more, and said: “Yes,
Humphrey....pooped?”

Oh boy.

We knew we had more to explain, so we dove right in.

Since Liam knew Humphrey had been visiting the vet quite often,
we told him there was something seriously wrong inside
Humphrey’s body — a disease — and while doctors spent a long
time trying to fix him, there wasn’t anything they could do and
his body was broken. (More on our choice of words below).

We got Liam to a point where he understood Humphrey wasn’t
returning home, but he didn’t fully grasp the physical change
that occurred. To put it bluntly: He didn’t understand that
Humphrey’s body remained at the vet, but Humphrey, the sweet
dog he knew, was gone.

“Is Humphrey staying at the vet? Oh, he’s sleeping there
tonight? That’s silly! Can we visit him tomorrow?”

Searching for a comparison he’d grasp, we compared Humphrey’s
illness to a toy that’s run out of batteries. He couldn’t fully
grasp this either, and responded with “Well then you can just
change the batteries! Can we change Humphrey’s batteries?” We
told him we can change the batteries on toys, but unfortunately
we can’t do that for pets, and they don’t live as long as we’d
like.

3. How much words matter

Liam, like most kids his age, has his fair share of fears and
anxieties. They come from unexpected places: bits of
conversations he overhears, experiences that didn’t go as
planned, even promises made by caregivers.

We knew we needed to choose our words carefully. We avoided the
phrase “put to sleep,” and avoided all mention of the word
“sickness.”

Beyond feeling incredibly dated and off-color, “put to sleep”
has the potential to conjure some terrible images for children.
Liam isn’t a bad sleeper, but like many kids, has his issues
going to bed. We certainly did not want to add assuaging the
fear of death to his evening routine.

“Sickness,” which he associates with the sniffles he gets
during the winter, was another important one to avoid. We
wanted Liam to know he — or anyone else he loves — could get
sick, without the fear of dying. A disease was identified as
something else, something beyond, something requiring the
intervention of hospitals and doctors with specialties. We
wanted to be sure not to lie to him about anything, and our
hope is that he will not be confronted with a disease anytime
soon.

4. How much emotion can convey

Actions speak just as loud as words for kids, and when Liam
noticed Tara and me struggling with our emotions during the
conversation, this was his cue to get sad. From the moment we
came home from the vet and interrupted his Curious George video
with “we need to talk to you about something,” Liam became much
more serious than he usually is. Even at his young age, he
could tell something was up.

We realized he’s not only still learning what death is, but how
to feel about it, and we wanted him to see the full range of
reaction, honestly. We want him to know that we are sad and
that it’s okay if he is sad, also.

5. How fast the conversation may be

The prep for the conversation took a while. We mulled word
choice, flow and speaker order for what seemed like hours. We
read up on the best way to talk about pets dying with
preschoolers. In the end, the conversation lasted no longer
than five minutes.

And Liam was fine. He popped off his bed with the same
exuberance he displays every day, none the worse for wear, and
went back to watching Curious George with his little brother
and his grandma and grandpa.

6. How the conversation will linger even if it is initially
quick

Even though Liam did not mention Humphrey for the rest of that
day, the next morning he woke up and asked about him, since he
wasn’t in his usual resting place.

“Where’s Humphrey?” Tara was forced to have a miniature version
of the conversation again, and this time Liam was sad, and
spent part of the morning lying in bed looking at a picture of
Humphrey. With kids as young as Liam, who don’t fully
understand what is going on, they need reminders and are
constantly going through a range of emotions.

Still, he bounced back and went off to camp a happy boy.

One of the hardest parts of Humphrey’s illness was our anxiety
about how Liam would handle it.

I now know he will be fine.

And we will be too, in time.

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