On Explaining Death To A 4-Year-Old Who Just Lost Her Dog

Flickr / Michelle Tribe
Flickr / Michelle Tribe

The text came close to midnight. “I just watched my dog die.” Almost immediately, this text was followed by, “How do I tell my toddler?” Grief. Death. Hard enough for adults to deal with, but how do you help a child?

My best friend of over 15 years, Dominique, now found herself going through a heart-wrenching moment with her four year old daughter, Andrea. She needed to find a way to help Andrea through the most painful experience of her young life. How do you cope with your own anguish when your baby daughter is looking to you for comfort from her own grief?

Over the years, as best friends are wont to do, we have helped each other through all the tribulations that life offered. This time was different. As fate would have it, she was always helping me. I had breakups, surgeries, car accidents, job losses, etc. Dominique had married her high school sweetheart, had a beautiful daughter, and she and her husband were both sailing up the corporate ladder. Up until now, she has had the fortune of not experiencing much loss in her life.

I still remember it like it was yesterday when she brought Rai home. Dobermans can be a demanding breed for the experienced dog owner, let alone for new owners like Dominique and her husband, Kellen. To help ease the stress of raising a puppy, I sent them a big Puppy Package, welcoming Rai into the home. There were treats, toys, bones, and an instruction manual that I had created myself.

My instruction manual did not include a chapter on what to do when she dies. We all thought we were still years away from that happening.

Rai was only six when she suddenly had a heart attack in their living room. Always the optimist, Dominique quickly found solace in the fact that Rai’s death was quick and painless, and she died while Dominique and Kellen were home. The thought that they would come home from work one day to find Rai’s body, not knowing if they could have done anything to help her, was overwhelming.

After the initial shock, Dominique went right into Mommy Mode. It was after midnight, she was cuddled next to her daughter, while her husband was out at the Emergency Vet with Rai. Her texts immediately went from, “I just saw my dog die” to “help me figure out how to tell my daughter. Find me something on how to help a toddler deal with the loss of her best friend.”

This was the first time I had really seen my best friend as a mom. Dominique, since she became a mom, has remained independent. She has an amazing career, travels, and still makes time to see the occasional concert with me. I still see Dominique for who she is as a person independent of motherhood. This, though, this grief, this is the first time I’ve see her scared for her child. Dominique was a great mom, but this was a test that she was not ready for. It pained me to see her fret over her daughter’s grief.

Rai’s death also coincided with Andrea’s fourth birthday. Maybe this was as good a time as any to start teaching her about death? She’s officially a little human now, and has moved passed the stage where she is diapers, dribble, and poop. Andrea has thoughts and feelings of her own, and is old enough to feel the loss of her dog.

After a restless night, Dominique and her husband sat Andrea down and told her the truth about Rai. “Remember how you saw Daddy carry Rai out of the house last night? We didn’t know it, but she was really sick.”

Viewing the world through the prism of childhood eyes, Andrea said “is she ok now? Did the doctor have to give her a shot?”

Through tears, “No, sweetie. The doctor can’t always make us better. Remember how we talked about how doggies don’t live forever? Rai died, sweetie. She’s in heaven playing with her cousin dogs.”

Andrea’s response, “So, I won’t have a doggy anymore? I don’t want her in heaven. I want her here with me.”

About once an hour that Saturday, struggling to comprehend reality, Andrea would ask, “I miss Rai. I miss my doggy. Can I have another one?”

Kellen’s parents happened to be in town, with their dog, for Andrea’s birthday while these events were transpiring. As the sad weekend ended and reality resumed, Andrea said good-bye to the visiting dog, “Bye, Max. I’ll miss you. When I come home from school today there will be no doggy in the house.”

A few days later, Andrea came home from daycare and said, “I told my friends my dog died. They all have dogs and grandparents that died.”

Dominique explained, “Yes, we all end up dying. That’s why we have to enjoy every moment.”

Showing maturity beyond her years, Andrea said, “I’m going to die one day.” Then she gave her mom a big hug.

With great love, comes great loss. TC mark

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