Explaining death to children can be incredibly difficult. Especially when that child is only three. Tiny-Small talks about death in abstract ways. She knows bugs die and plants die. She knows people in old photographs have died, but I doubt she truly grasps the concept of death. To be honest, I don’t know if I truly do either. I mean, I don’t know what happens when we die. I have my theories, my fantasies and my hopes, but there really isn’t any certainty there. There isn’t one answer to these big questions. There isn’t any absolute proof I can point to and say without a doubt, “This is what happens when we die.”
On Tuesday, my mom’s dog Cleo died. Cleo was twelve years old. She contracted some mysterious illness and the veterinarian did everything he could to make her better, but in the end he couldn’t save her. Jim and I discussed at length what and how to tell Tiny-Small. Jim wanted to pretend nothing had happened and to wait and see if Tiny-Small even noticed Cleo’s absence. That didn’t feel quite right to me. I felt like I should tell Tiny-Small what had happened. I asked for help on Facebook. I wondered how other people explained death to their children. I got some good advice. One reader even directed me to a book about dogs going to heaven. I bought it for Tiny-Small. I liked it right away because the author described heaven as a place that made sense to me. A place I would like to go. I’ve never really liked the traditional ideas about heaven. Sitting on a cloud, strumming a harp and floating around, just sounds so boring to me. I don’t see God wearing long, white robes sitting in some gold throne and all of that stuff. I liked this book because in heaven dogs run and play and God feeds them biscuits shaped liked hotdogs and ice cream cones. Angels take dogs back to earth to visit their family members and to chase the neighbors cat. Also, God just looks like a farmer-cowboy guy taking care of business. Which I found somewhat reassuring because wouldn’t God want to look familiar to us? If we are made in his image wouldn’t he look sort of like a regular guy? My favorite part in the book is the end when dogs wait for their owners to come home (to heaven) and you see an old guy walking with a cane as his dog runs to greet him. When I die, I hope my dog is there to welcome me “home” because that just sounds like heaven to me. Plus, I think a dogs love for us is pretty much as close as we can get to God’s love here on earth. I mean, dogs love unconditionally like no other man or beast I have ever encountered.
Anyway, I told Tiny-Small that Cleo didn’t get better at the doctors and that she had died. Our conversation went like this:
Me: Cleo isn’t coming home from the doctors. She died.
Tiny-Small: Cleo died? Did Memé (my mom) cry?
Me: Yes, Memé cried. She was sad.
Tiny-Small: Did Bitsy (my mom’s cat) die too?
Me: No, Bitsy is still alive.
Tiny-Small: Cleo died? She died.
Me: Yes, she died.
Tiny-Small: She died like Izzy and like you dad, Mom?
Me: Yes, Cleo died. Her body got tired and didn’t want to work anymore.
Tiny-Small: Oh. She died, Mom.
Then Tiny-Small ran off to play. She mentioned that Cleo died a few times as the day went on. We read the book about the dogs going to heaven after dinner. I couldn’t tell if she really related the book to Cleo though because she seemed mostly interested in kid angels and ice cream cone dog treats. Then, this morning she asked me about my mom’s cat, “Is Bitsy dead, Mom?” I told her no and that Bitsy was still alive and busy doing cat things at Memé’s house. Then Tiny-Small told me, “Cleo died, Mom. Memé cried.” I can tell she is processing what it means and trying to understand. She knows death makes people sad. I can tell she wants to comfort my mom. I think she understands the most important parts about death. She knows when something dies it is over and that the people still living are sad and need comforting. I think that is probably about all she really needs to know at the age of three. The rest is just a mystery that she will have to figure out the best she can the same way we all do: Faith, discussion, hope.
*The book was Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant if you need a book to help explain the death of a pet and you believe in God, heaven and angels.