Imagine There’s No Heaven

The hardest aspect of putting Desdemona down this morning (besides the whole putting down aspect of it and the me crying all day thing and then the disposing of the not-very-self-cleaning litter box that I always hated which was heavy as hell and holy cow, was it nasty) has been explaining the cat’s absence to Thalia.

She essentially knew that the cat was sick and went to the doctor. So, playing off that, we told her that Desi went to go live with the doctor to get better.

What can I say, it just came out.

It’s easy now, with Thalia only two and not understanding concepts much more complicated than the Wonderpets saving a baby cow who’s stuck in a tree. (Big twister. Don’t ask.) But in time there will be more death and more explaining and it can’t always be that everyone we know who gets sick goes to live with a doctor.

First of all, the doctors wouldn’t have it.

So here’s the question:

How do you/did you/will you talk to younger kids about death, particularly when you don’t have the happy heaven story to fall back on?

(And I’m not being facetious, I swear.)

I’m a non-practicing Jew, as they call it these days, with more commitment to the Jewish culture and values than to the religion. Nate’s a satisfied Atheist. One of the downsides of our collective beliefs, or lack thereof, is that we don’t get free access to that treasure chest full of convenient faith-based answers to life’s tough questions. It’s too bad. It would make things a whole lot easier.

Or as Jack Handey so beautifully put it: If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is “God is Crying.” And if he asks why God is crying, I think another cute thing to tell him is, “Probably because of something you did.”


90 thoughts on “Imagine There’s No Heaven”

  1. I totally tell my kid that about God crying and when he asks why the same thing!!!Only when the sky rumbles I tell him God is angry and he asks why and I tell him it was something Dad did 🙂

  2. I wrote about this when we had to put one of our dogs down in March. We told annabel that Maggie was sick — the kind of sick that doesn’t get better. And that the vet was going to take care of her. We decided to tell her Maggie died and that we wouldn’t be seeing her again.She handled it much better than I did. I cried for two days. Really I think you can tell them whatever you like, just know that whatever you tell them it’s going to come up again and again. Annabel wanted to know every day where maggie was, and every day I just told her the same thing. She died and she wasn’t sick anymore, but we couldn’t see her. She was satisfied and just went back to coloring, or playing or whatever else she was doing.

  3. We had to put our dog to sleep when my oldest was 18 months old. We said very little about why Cisco was gone, and at 18 months our son didn’t have many questions. However, he sees pictures and video of him with Cisco now (at 4) and asks questions about where Cisco went.I guess I don’t really have any words of wisdom because we just tell him that Cisco went to the vet and died. It sort of crushes me every time my four year old says “we had a dog but he’s dead now,” all matter of fact with no emotions. He doesn’t get the gravity of death yet, and at 2 I’m guessing Thalia won’t either. I haven’t felt the need to pull out any biblical references…since our Little People’s Noah’s Ark is fondly referred to as “Bob’s Boat” in our household, we don’t have much to draw from.

  4. I don’t have any advice or input. I just wanted to tell you I’m sorry.

  5. I don’t know. We DO have the heaven story to fall back on, and it still makes me incredibly uncomfortable. My son says things like, “I don’t want to get old. I want to go to heaven now.” What do you say to THAT?Maybe you could say, when people get old or very, very sick, their bodies wear out and they can’t live in them anymore…but they always live on in our hearts and memories. Maybe? It is such a difficult subject to broach from any viewpoint. Again, I am so sorry about your kitty, Liz.

  6. As you know, we’ve had some very candid conversations here about death (along with all of the other side effects of believing differently from others).While I don’t want to get into heavy details that a child can’t absorb, I also don’t want to minimize what death means. It’s a fine line to walk.

  7. I don’t know how to do that. But I’ll tell you how NOT to do it.When my mother died when I was 7, my father’s words of comfort for me was, “Well, shit happens.”Bravo, father. Bravo.I have a slight feeling you’ll handle it a little more gracefully than that. 😉

  8. We’re in the same boat (and it ain’t Noah’s ark) when trying to explain death. We can’t in good conscience talk about heaven.So I’ll be reading the comments for some brilliant easy-on-the-hurting-heart explanation of death.Sorry it was rough.

  9. I’m so sorry. I have no idea what I am going to tell baby girl when one of our dogs (or god forbid a person) dies. I don’t even want to think about it! I guess I would just say whatever I had to given the situation. (And since you mentioned it, what is the deal with the serious “twister” in that episode? It seems a little too realistic for my neck of the woods! It is definitely “sewious.”)

  10. funny first or serious first? okay, serious first.even though i do have my own beliefs (i’m catholic, if you’re interested), i want my kids to someday make up their own minds about life. i want them to understand other beliefs and cultures. so when i talk to them about death, i’ll probably talk about it in terms of “some people believe…” i’m not convinced it’s the BEST way to go about it, but i’m also not convinced there is one BEST way. i’ll tell them what i believe, too, and what their father believes (which i don’t even know yet, since i have no idea who that father is). but that’s so many years away, i have no idea what will happen between now and then.and the funny: your post actually reminded me of a different jack handey quote. “when you die, if you get a choice between going to regular heaven or pie heaven, choose pie heaven. it might be a trick, but if it’s not, mmmm boy!”hahahaha. oh, how i love jack handey.

  11. We had a cardinal that we rescued and it kicked the bucket about 2 weeks later. We talked about heaven, it sounds so much nicer then saying the dead bird is getting buried and will rot in the ground. A week later our parakeet succumbed to the same mystery illness and once again we talked about heaven. My kids are now obsessed with heaven. they are excited to know that our birds are in heaven with Bob Marley.

  12. God…I just wrote about this. My Diminutive One is really obsessed with the afterlife lately and finding a belief that works with his inherent (inherited) skepticism. Sometimes I think it’s easier when they’re young because they’re so accepting. Mine are old enough now to question, and it’s tough to satisfy them sometimes. Good luck with Thalia and my condolences on Desi’s passing.

  13. I’m sorry about Desi.I too am basically a non-practicing/atheist Jew so we’ve had similar issues deciding what to say about death. My son was a little bit older when this came up, but I ended up telling him that “no one knows for sure, but some people believe X and some people believe Y”. He settled on an obscure version of X for himself. X was sort of a spinoff of the Eskimo idea that stars are the hearth fires of your loved ones who’ve died. He decided that when you die you go live on a star, and his main concern then was whether the whole family got to share the same star. (Yes, of course.) We do tend to preach a lot about diversity in our house though, so helping him reach his own conclusions wasn’t as big a stretch as you might think.

  14. i am sorry for your loss…i don’t have a clue how to do this. the other day M say a dead moth and she said “make it fly” and J said “we can’t, it died” and then today we were talking and i used that expression “I almost died!” in a jackassery sort of way and M overhead and said “only moths die” and we looked at each other and thought…wow. now THERE is a essence i offer you a whole lot of nothing here. sorry about that.

  15. We’re similar, I’m a non-practiciing Jew, husband an ex-Catholic, and I’m also more uncomfortable with death than he is. I was really worked up when my neighbor died and my husband just sat the kids down and told them she died. My kids are 3 and 4 1/2 and the older one went, “did she do this?” (and clutched his throat and stuck his tongue out 🙂 We said she died peacefully and we could visit her as he is buried in the ground. He’s heard from his cousin that his cousin’s uncle is in heaven he doesn’t seem confused or filled with questions, but also he obviously didn’t see these people every day. Good luck, and as other’s have said, kids seem to handle these things way more than we give them credit for, or handle them ourselves sometimes.

  16. The crying comes as a surprise doesn’t it? One of our cats was killed earlier this year and I wasn’t prepared for how much I cried and how long I mourned for. We told my daughter (about the same age as yours)that he had gone for a walk and wasn’t coming back. She didn’t miss him for weeks but now asks about his or refers to him at least once a week. I know I should have told her simply that he died but didn’t.

  17. We are not religious so we don’t do the gone to heaven explanation. Mot kids have seen the Lion King movie, so I find the whole circle of life thing is something they can relate to.

  18. My husband’s brother died of cancer at the age of 25, when my daughter was two years old. We decided it was best to be honest with her and explained that her uncle had died and what that meant (he didn’t breathe anymore, he didn’t eat anymore, he didn’t feel anything anymore etc.). We also made sure to explain that just because her uncle had gotten sick didn’t mean that anyone else she knew who got sick would die. We told her most people get better. We told her we were sad and that her grandma and grandpa would be sad. When she said “I don’t feel sad!” we told her that’s ok. We said she could give us big hugs to help us feel better. At that point I would say we still had some belief in “heaven” (I’m not sure I can still say that) but we didn’t really talk about it to our daughter. It’s a pretty abstract concept and most religions that claim belief in heaven can’t really tell you what it’s like anyway. I really think it’s important to tell kids the truth about death. In the end it was less of a big deal than we thought it would be. We spoke for a couple minutes and then she ran off to play. We’ve revisited the concept many times since but I think it’s very healthy to know about death and be able to talk about it freely, rather than fear it.

  19. My sympathies about Desi.On the other: Get thee to a bookstore or a library my friend. There is a whole shelf of kids books about helping explain death to kids — including death of a pet. Some are religious but many are not. My son’s cat, that he got when he was about 2, went missing when he was 3 and we had to address it then. We were pretty honest and he knows the truth, but he still misses the cat, and likes to pretend that the cat jumped on the UPS truck. It was sad but it helped a lot when his grandmother (my husband’s mom) died when he was 4.

  20. OK — I’m not religious either — but for the record wouldn’t it be EASIER to say, “Desi is in heaven with angels.” Blah, blah, blah…So, we had to explain to my then-three year old son why his grandfather died. I was seeing a shrink at the time — highly recommended — and, her advice was to make death concrete and NOT something that can happen to them or to Mom and Dad. In other words, we said, “Grandpa died because he was really old and really sick.” My son could think — “OK, I’m not really old and really sick and neither are my parents…I can deal with this.” Not the total truth but there is a Santa at that age and all those exceptions in life can be learned LATER as they are more mature to handle them. ALSO, the only other thing I see that may not be great about your approach (I hate being judgmental) with Thalia — is that you don’t want her to freak out about going to the doctor and thinking she may never come back…remember though — she is two and kids are so resilient…you’re a great mom.

  21. As a Unitarian, I’ve been in the same boat. We had a nine year old friend die suddenly and his mom put it best at the service they held. She explained that everything on our earth has a lifetime. Flowers, when we pick them, live for a day. Pet fish might live for a year. Some tortoises live over 100 years! We hope that people (and our favorite pets) will live for a long time, but we don’t know. We need to enjoy every day of our life because we don’t know how long of a lifetime we will get. This is the Circle of Life. There are some great books on the subject of talking to children about death. I think starting with small things like flowers and then pets is good preparation for the day their grandparent (or someone younger) dies.

  22. My kids got several lessons in death when they were little. An uncle died quite suddenly, and my daughter (4 at the time) became really obsessed about it and whenever we went to church she insisted that we pray for Uncle Tony because he was dead and in heaven (by the way, we’re Unitarian and have never discussed praying for the dead). A year later a very close friend of mine died in a car accident. The kids were in the room when I got the phone call and when I subsequently fell to the floor in hysterics (yeah, I’m cool – cool as a cucumber). Because we’re Unitarian, we’ve always been pretty vague about what happens after we die, but the kids had watched a LOT of Veggie Tales and definitely believed in heaven.A year later, my cat got hit by a car very early in the morning, before the vet opened. She obviously was not going to make it, but she wasn’t in pain, so I just sat outside with her until we could take her to the vet. When the kids got up my husband told them what was going on and we gave them a chance to say goodbye. (Neither of them wanted to.) We buried her in the back yard. A few days later, my son (he was 4) wanted to dig up the hole to see if she was still there or if she was in heaven. We talked about heaven and what he thought about it, and I told him that even if she was in heaven, her body would still be in the ground.A month later he wanted to dig her up to see what her body looked like.In 2004-2005, two beloved, old pets died. The kids were old enough to understand, and were sad. But no discussion of afterlife or digging them up or anything like that since then. I think the important thing is staying age-appropriate in your explanations. At 2, your child really can’t understand. In a few years, though, you can tell her what you think happens when we die (my husband and I have very different opinions, and the kids know this), and you can use the opportunity to ask what she thinks happens.I’m sorry about your cat. It’s really awful to lose a pet.

  23. Julee, thank you for pointing that out. (Not judgmental; it’s a perfectly fair point.) It’s actually something we were concerned about, Thalia worrying that the doctor=staying forever so we continued to remind her that doctors make people better blah blah blah. Okay so it’s an awkward and terrible explanation. But in the emotion of the moment it was working. I suppose I wasn’t ready for Thalia to know about death yet. But these comments are making me realize that dead to a toddler isn’t like dead to us. These comments are all amazing. I’m so impressed with how much candor people use for their very young children. In a few months, I can’t wait to hear all your thoughts on Santa Claus!

  24. I haven’t had to deal with death yet with my almost two year old, though I’m certainly getting some good ideas from your readers! Anyway, just wanted to say that I’m sorry about Desi’s passing….it’s always hard to lose a pet, no matter how ornery they were in life.

  25. My oldest (6) has lived through the death of both birds AND the long, agonizing death of her beloved Opa (my dad) (and now one of our cats is close to death too). I have used the ‘heaven’ line, but we do not believe in hell, and ‘heaven’ (which is not described but is more of a concept) is for everyone and anyone. It is more where the ‘essence’ of the person goes when their body doesn’t work anymore. (this helps her to think of the ‘body’ or exterior of someone as less important than what they truly are).We will sometimes let a balloon go and watch it fly up to the sky. As it goes, we’ll yell up to “Opa” that the balloon is for him. She loves this and it helps to keep him real for her. Death is pretty scary to adults, I don’t want to scare her with it as well.

  26. I think when the time comes, alot of it will depend on the kid. An adored uncle died very suddenly two years ago. Each of my nieces and nephews, who at the time ranged in age from 4 to 14, handled the death part differently. One of my nephews needed to understand the physical aspect of it, so the undertaker was kind enough to answer all of his questions, and show him the casket room and explain what a vault was and how they would lower the casket in (morbid, I know, but he needed to understand it and was dramatically better once he did). A niece was quiet until someone gave her a task, and then she wholeheartedly dove into creating the wonderful collages of pictures that were displayed at the wake and funeral. She needed active involvement. Another one just wanted to draw pictures of the dead uncles truck, and put it in the casket. Each kid had their own way of dealing, but overall I do think all of them wanted and needed reassurance that this wasnt going to start happening to all of their people now.I am sorry for your loss.

  27. I dunno. When my brother was two, our grandmother died. It sparked some huge anxiety in him related to his own parents going away and never coming back. I’ll be saying goodbye to my own dad soon, and I’m going to just give my own 2-year old a pass on this one. We’ll talk about it when she’s older; when we can look at pictures and tell nice stories about his life.

  28. Bossy is peeing herself remembering Jack Handey. Bossy has dug her grave many times regarding death (no *fun* intended) – her happy heaven story always involves how the lost pets and loved ones are all together now, probably in Aunt Jenny’s kitchen – the one with the pink rubber placemats – and someone is turning the flame a little higher under the coffee pot and someone is snapping their fingers along with the radio, maybe even Benny Goodman himself.

  29. I met Desi. She was, um, special. She actually cornered me in your bathroom in the middle of the night and had me convinced that whoever coined the term ‘hounds of hell’ got the species wrong.Still, I’m a bit teary over here. She was a fierce beeyatch, and I respect that. And I have buried one or two four-legged beeyatches in my time, and was nonetheless heart-stung by the experience. Always, hugs to you.

  30. Death comes up all the time around here even though we haven’t had much of a real reason to talk about it. We also don’t use any convenient, faith-based explanations. We do the “no one knows, but some people think this and some people think that, what do you think? What do you want it to be like?” explanation. But Thalia is still so young! (and I am reminding myself to say “TH-alia” not “T-alia”, I am glad I learned that at BlogHer from you!).Oh, and the circle of life, also a good talking point although Scott once said “Your grandma died? Did she turn into dirt yet?” So, no real answers from me …But I am sorry for your loss.

  31. My in-laws dog died when my child was under three. She was just told that Spike died – he got old and sick and died. She just took it in. For months after, though, she’d tell me – “Spike died. I have to tell Grandma.” – that is, Grandma the dog’s owner. She’s been very matter of fact about it.I’m sorry about your cat.

  32. I wish I had something intelligent to share, but I don’t. We don’t practice religion at all, so I haven’t the faintest idea how to approach this topic without the mention of Heaven and not being hypocritical. I *think* if I was faced with this same issue I would probably use a description of heaven at this age (Carter is the same age as Thalia).I’m so sorry, I can’t imagine that this is easy.

  33. When our fabulous dog died, my kids were 3,7, and11. I realized that they cried because I cried, and within days, while I was trying to suck it up and look brave, they were wondering, much to my amazement when we could get a new dog. They talked about missing him for a long time, and I would agree, I missed him too. They didn’t seem to hurt like I was hurting, but in a way he was my baby before I had babies.

  34. without reading the other comments, I have to say I am so sorry about your cat. I had a dog for 17 years and the day I had to put her down was one of the hardest days ever, and I really don’t care for dogs too much. Once you have children your pets take a back seat, and you don’t realize how much you depend on their just being there, until they aren’ you need to have heaven to have a spirit? strangely we dealt with this very recently, my brother died just a couple weeks ago. My youngest, who is 8, noticed he didn’t look the same when he saw him at the wake, and I told him it was because his spirit wasn’t there anymore. Instead his spirit was keeping an eye on him, and was a part of him now (he has his name for a middle name). While he was distraught over never seeing his uncle again, he was comforted with this knowledge of the spirit, not so much heaven.I hope it helps

  35. As my daughter is only 2 months old, we haven’t dealt with the death issue yet, but I’ve already thought about the general issue. I’m a non-denominational Christian of sorts, and my husband is what I like to call a militant athiest. I think we’re going to have to take the “Some people believe X and some people believe Y. Here is what I believe, and here is what Daddy believes,” type of tactic with her when the time comes. I have no illusions that even if I tried to force my beliefs on her (which I never would) that it would ensure her beliefs match mine. My husband was brought up in a church, and is very cynical about religion in general. So basically I’m just hoping that the conversation is put off as long as possible, and that when the time comes I have the tools to give her facts, and she can form her own ideas.

  36. I’m so sorry about your cat. I’ve lost a few too. Our new cat disappeared last year after getting out of the house. We don’t know if someone stole him or if he died. When he didn’t come back, I told the boys that the cat found some friends and wanted to be with his cat family. It worked. Have you read parenting beyond belief?

  37. Another Jennifer – boy, could we compare notes about having a militant atheist in the family. I think you put it perfectly. Petite mom – we actually have the book (or Nate does) but it’s under some pile somewhere, yet unread. Thanks for the suggestion. That’s a wonderful idea.

  38. Liz, I know how sucky this is. We had to put Clio down a few years ago. For myself I found denial to be my strongest ally. I asked for all traces of her (water bowls, crates, smelly leashes) to be removed by the time I got back from my errand that was to take exactly one our longer than the vet’s appointment.You know that I have no qualms about lying to my son, and I think I said nearly verbatim what you said to Thalia. Eventually one day one of us said that she was dead. Enough time had passed that it was just a matter of fact, not leaping off point for the bigger discussion of death, life, and what comes next.At two, I don’t don’t think the intricate details are appropriate to go into, regardless of your faith. Perhaps a framed picture of Desi and her would be good so that she can “think nice thoughts about her.”Lots of love from your northern neighbor.

  39. Someone told me when I was pretty young (seven or eight, I think) that pets don’t go to Heaven. I replied that if that were true, then I wasn’t going either.My parents always felt that it’s our responsibility to be with our pets when they pass. So when we got to a certain age (like double digits), we would be there we our pet was being put to sleep. I actually found it easier to cope that way because I could see with my own eyes that they were at peace and no longer it pain. Before we were old enough for that, they would always make it clear when the pet was sick and not going to get better as a way of preparing us. My folks were also non-religious, so I was told that death brings peace and an end to suffering. We’ll sad because we miss them, but we should also be glad that they won’t be in pain anymore.Anyway, I hope that helps some. I’m very sorry about Desi.

  40. Grey Matter – The picture! Perfect. I always knew you were smart. Lisa G – I think I love your parents.

  41. “I’m a non-practicing Jew, as they call it these days, with more commitment to the Jewish culture and values than to the religion”that’s me,too…so i have the same questions as you 🙂

  42. I struggle with this as well and did so very recently. I have a post started on the subject, so I’ll finish it rather than blather on for forever in your comments!I guess my short version is that I did something similar to what you did and I wish I’d known how to do it differently. But I think maybe my almost 3 year old is still a bit too young to understand.I’m so sorry about your kitty.

  43. this is so hard, in so many ways, as all your brilliant commenters have already gone over.we had to discuss death with my then 3.5-yr-old twins when my aunt died of cancer last year. we took the “she was sick and old” route, to distinguish her from them. worked well enough. then a little boy in their preschool died suddenly (unknown medical condition) and we were completely utterly stumped. i’m still unsure of how to handle that. we just did the best we could and i hope we did it ok.Good luck. I send hugs.

  44. When my last cat died, my son was still too young to talk, so I didn’t have to explain it to him, though I could tell he missed her (he still sleeps with a plush cat at night now, more than two years later). He does seem curious about death occasionally, though– when I show him photos of the cat, or of family members who have died. (Or when he watches Finding Nemo– see my old blog post on that if you’re interested). I’ve explained to my son that death happens when a body gets too broken to work right anymore. When he asks specifically about the cat, I tell him she was very old and sick, and her body was worn out, and it needed to rest. But I’m not sure how much he really understands, and he’s a whole year older than Thalia. I think death is a difficult concept for children this age to grasp, no matter how you explain it to them. I am a pantheist (Google with: Spinoza, Einstein, Romantic poets) and I belong to a pantheist message board where the subject of how to talk about death to kids without resorting to the heaven explanation has come up many times. The best suggestion I’ve read came from a parent who said that one day in the bath, she took a cup and filled it with water, and told her son that the cup full of water was what being was like when people are alive. Then she poured the water back into the bath, and said, “This is what being is like after death. The water didn’t go away– it just lost its form and its separateness, and went back to being a part of the rest of the water.”I personally think this is a great explanation, but, I think preschoolers are probably a bit young to grasp even that. I’m so sorry about poor Desdemona.

  45. First, I am so sorry for your loss 🙁 You are a great person for doing this for Desi.As far as the death thing goes, we skirted around it for a long time as well. At about two years of age, my daughter saw a dead bird and said it was “sleeping”. So we took that and ran with it; It’s sleeping forever and won’t wake up. Pure Atheists here, and I personally believe in reincarnation. I’m not going to drop that heavy load on my daughter though, she will be able to make up her own mind after being exposed to as many religions as we can get (although I have explained the concept to her when she asked). She has attended a Christian camp, attended baptisms etc. Solid, aware choices are how we do things.It was hardest to get through my DH’s grandfather’s death last year. But he was very very sick with cancer and we told Paige that he was an old man (with no disrespect), had lived a very full life, and needed to stop suffering. Just the facts. She’s accepted his death as well as a child her age can.

  46. Be honest. Tell her that Desdemona died and you won’t be seeing her again. She may not understand completely but she will when she gets a little older. My parents lied to me about what happened to my dogs, cats and rabbits and it was really traumatic for me. The truth hurts but lies hurt more.

  47. mod*tot noticed dried up bugs + worms in the yard + we said they weren’t alive anymore since they can’t move. she knows we’re animals too + that sometimes when animals get sick, they don’t get better + they’re not alive anymore.

  48. When my daughter’s baby chick died, I had this same problem. What I told her, though it may seem kind of wacky, was that everything in the world is made up of energy, and that when her chick died, her energy became part of the big world again. I told her that nothing is ever gone for GOOD, but it’s not always in a form we recognize as our pet. I know it sounds pretty cheesy. But it did seem to make her feel better to know that her pet wasn’t just GONE.

  49. I second “Parenting Beyond Belief.” It’s an excellent book of essays. There are several that deal with explaining death when you don’t believe in heaven.-K

  50. We had to put down our beagle when Trout was about 2.5. My husband and I have different religious beliefs, but we told her that the dog had gone to heaven and was running around in heaven with God. At that age, kids don’t really understand much that is abstract, so in reality you could tell her that Desi went to Tibuktu and it really wouldn’t mean much to her. Anything you tell her that won’t scare her about her own reality is fine.As my kids have grown older and we’ve had other deaths to process (my grandmother in 06 and my grandfather this year), we’ve taken the “Some people believe this and some people belive that but no one really knows for sure” tack, and then discuss with them what they think. It even came up with my 5 year old after watching Charlotte’s Web, and we did the circle of life talk.It is such a hard topic, and pretty much feels like no matter what you say, it’ll be wrong. My thoughts are with you all.

  51. Okay as a Dr’s wife I can definitely agree that all those dead people are not going to be welcome in my living room! Now you’ve got me kind of creeped out about going downstairs.Seriously though we’ve had a few deaths in the last couple of years and I was amazed how much the 5 year old seemed to understand and even help me explain. We do have the heaven thing to lean on but I was shocked when I touched on the soul leaving the body and she seemed to fully comprehend… “it’s like when Ariel’s voice leaves her” she told me. Perfect image I thought! “Yes but instead of going to Ursala a soul goes to be with God.” I could not have gotten there on my own. She was happy that her very old Great-Granny’s soul sang it’s way to God.She seems more stressed by the idea that everyone dies and eventually it will happen to me. Just this week she whispered… “I know you’re trying really hard not die, but if you do will I be Sissy’s mommy?”Now that’s what I don’t know what to do with!

  52. Not having kids, I can saftly say that you should blame it on the doctor as long as she’ll except it as an answer. At five, you may need to come up with something else, but not at two. If it was a person, you’d need to say soemthing else, but not a cat. Not this young anyway. I’m so sorry about Desi.

  53. I am so sorry to hear about the death of your cat. None the less, I believe you should talk to your daughter about you and your husbands beliefs and the different religions and let her choose whether to believe in God or not too. I dont think telling her that Desi went to heaven where she no longer hurts is a bad thing. I am a Christian and when we lost both of our dogs my son was 4 years old and we told him that they were in heaven and were not hurting anymore and took him to where they are buried and told him that this is where he could talk to them. He goes and visits just about everyday.

  54. I am a sometimes-practicing Catholic, but as someone who doesn’t have all her little spiritual ‘facts’ in order, I still have trouble explaining these things to my daughter. Heaven, I’m not even sure I believe in it. So sorry about your cat, and death, it’s just one of those things that is terribly hard to talk to a child about, without scaring the bejesus out of them or confusing them or whatever.

  55. We don’t have any pets, so the question has never arisen in regards to having to put the family pet down. But, as you probably already know, my mum died not even a year before I had Julia, and in the last two years she has asked me a lot about death, and about dying.I have always tried to be as honest with Julia about death as I felt I could be. I mean, I don’t go into gory details or anything, but I have tried not to sugar coat things — and I don’t really have heaven to fall back on, either. When she asks about my mother I tell her that Grandma E was very sick and that she died because she was very sick. She asks if Grandma E will come back and I say no, but I have told her that she is around us, as a spirit, and that we can talk to her out loud or in our heads if we want. She’s asked when I will die, and if I will be here forever and I tell her that I won’t die for a long, long time. It took a long time for her to realize that when someone dies, they don’t come back. We’ve had long conversations about that and I think that really startled her, when she finally realized that the reason why I cry sometimes is because I miss my mum, because she’s not coming back. That, above and beyond anything I’ve told her about death, really stuck with her and scared her a bit, and that’s why I haven’t really elaborated on it further when she asks me about it in regards to me. Because she has asked me if I will die, and if I’ll be her mother forever, and I’ve always told her that I will always be her mother, but I’ve skirted around the “When will you die?” question.I hope this makes sense…I’m totally distracted by the fact that Oliver is pushing our fucking couch across the den.

  56. Aw, I’m sorry to hear about your cat. And I wish I had some ideas on what to tell Thalia. I’ll probably be there myself in a couple years when my baby is older. Blessings….

  57. I’m so sorry about Desi. I also had a black cat named Desdemona. (I thought she was the only one. She did have chronic conjunctivitis though, so she always had a gruesome, gooey eye. But she was still cute.) When we moved to Maryland from Alaska, she stayed with my sister and unexpectedly died there. My oldest was two at the time and we are not religious so we didn’t want to start in about heaven. We were just matter of fact about it. (She died. These things happen. You’re not going to die. We’re not going to die. Etc…) He accepted it very well, and moved on pretty quickly.You and your Desi are in my thoughts.

  58. My sincere condolences on Desi’s death.Please be very, very upfront with Thalia. She can handle it. We chose to do that with our son. My mother was such a FREAK about death that she never went to funerals, never took us to funerals, and I didn’t go to a funeral until I was in my 20’s. Her pet bunny died one day while she was at school, and rather than keep the bunny and talk about it with her when she returned home from school, her parents said, “Bunny went to bunny heaven.” and she never saw it again. Ergo, the freakiness and death fear.When my son was eight, my 16-year old cat needed to be euthanized because of rapidly deteriorating health. We all piled into the car with Lulu and headed to the vet. I had talked to him about it during the day, we petted and talked to our kitty (who was obviously looking very ill at the time) and we talked about being very old and very ill. I told him that our vet was going to give Kitty a special shot to help her die without pain. It’s not a shot that children EVER get, I said, but we help animals to die sometimes because we do not want them to suffer and they can’t use words to help us understand what they are feeling.He came into the treatment room with us while she was still alive, and petted her for the last time. Then he waited in the waiting room with Gramma until Kitty died. We stayed with the cat. After, he came in and saw her body and touched her so that it was real. Then the vet did something extraordinary … we were the last appointment of the day, so he gave our son a tour of the operating room and the x-ray machine and the inner workings of the pet hospital. Our kid got a birds eye view of both the healing and the dying parts of animal care.Kids really can handle death well when they are young. It is matter of fact, you live you die, kind of stuff. The developmentally appropriate words will come if you treat her with intelligence and compassion, and use what you know are the right words for her.BTW, we are Lutherans, and we didn’t once say “kitty heaven.” The ashes are buried in the garden, with a little stepping stone I made for her. Our son played his cello in the garden while we put her ashes down the hole. Kids are amazing in how they walk US through the process of death.She is a lucky girl (as is Sage) to have a Mama who wants so much to do the “right” thing. Trust your gut. Trust Nate’s gut. After all, you are the ones who made her, and you are helping pass on YOUR beliefs and your traditions and your rites of passage. Whatever you choose is perfect for your children.

  59. I usually say “some people believe…, and some people believe….” when they ask what I think I admit that I am not sure, still trying to figure it out.

  60. When we went to my grandfather’s funeral in February, The Mayor asked my mom where “Ady” was and my mom just sort of barked, “ADY’S DEAD!!!” I nearly fell over.

  61. So sorry. I only met Desi once, and she didin’t even hiss at me (just gave me an annoyed, uninterested look). But I hold a deep respect for a creature that can strike such fear into the hearts of even the biggest animal lovers. Wishing you the best. I can’t imagine what I would say to the kids…

  62. We tend to just go with the flow or whatever seems right in the moment with our kids… that doesn’t mean that what we end up saying is the *right* thing, but hopefully it’s in the area or at least shows that we were doing our best. I think kids get that and appreciate our honesty (or what we want them to believe as honesty.) So sorry for your loss. In my family pets are like people. Steph

  63. If my kids want to know what people believe, I’ll get into a discussion of different beliefs; but if they are asking for answers, then a “Well, some people believe…” response is usually beside the point. My answer to a question about, say, how the world got here doesn’t involve discussing a lotus springing from the navel of Vishnu, however many millions may believe that that is part of the answer. And I don’t sidestep the issue by discussing others’ belief in heaven, reincarnation, etc., when my children ask about death.My 6 y.o. son was the one who found his great-grandmother dead one morning (she lived with us) last October, so there was much to discuss with him and his younger siblings. But in the end what we told them is pretty simple: When someone dies that person no longer exists; we can still remember them and how much we loved them; it can happen when people are old, or really sick, or too unsafe, or just extremely unlucky; it’s very sad, but after awhile, it doesn’t feel quite so sad; yes, eventually mommy and daddy will die, and so will you, but probably not for a long time; and just try to be as healthy and as safe as you can when doing things you like to do. For us two atheists, that pretty much sums it up. And in the end, the kids have handled death as well as we have.I’m sorry for your loss. You and your family take care.

  64. I just wrote about,losing our hamster. We basically told the girls (ages almost 3-5.5) what happened and that inevitably, it happens. They had somewhat of a concept as we lost their great-meme two years ago – the older two remember her much.The youngest was the hardest to explain to. She saw the dead hamster, saw us putting it i nthe box. She asked questions. She keeps asking if we are going to go get it when it wakes up. She asks if we are going to get a new one. She tells us she misses it. And we try to answer as truthfully as we can.

  65. I know you’ve already had better comments that this, but what the hell. Kitty died when Jackson was 2 1/2 — he understood that she was sick and old, so when I came back crying from the vet I just said, Kitty’s dead. And he was fine with it. When Katie the dog died and he was 4 1/2, we had some tears, and talk about what happens after death (“You decompose” — good atheist answer). Hugs.

  66. No real words of insight other than was everyone else said.We had to put my dog to sleep last year after he because ill beyond return at age 12. It was a surprise to us because we thought that when we took him to the vet the vet would just put him on meds and he’d get better. Unfortunately what she said was that he was labored and he found breathing difficult and that he was in a lot of pain and very unhappy. And it was true. We just didn’t see it until that point. My husband and I had our kids there (4 and 2). They didn’t understand what was happening. My 4 year old was confused as to why we were leaving him at the vet (after we stayed with him while he was euthanized). We told her he was very sick and had to stay at the doctor’s office.We’ve since moved. I have my dog’s ashes in a little decorative tin (I know some people might think this morbid but he was my dog and a big part of our family) and I keep it in our bedroom – where he would be with us because he was always there in our room when we were sleeping. My 4 year old used to explain to her little sister that our dog was at the doctor’s because he was very sick. She would say this at least three times a day. Then she stopped. She looks at pictures of him and comments but doesn’t ever revisit where she thinks he is. It’s just part of life now. He’s not there but pictures and memories of him are.Bottom line is that I really don’t believe you can explain to children what happened to a pet (or other family member for that matter) if they die and if the child has absolutely no concept of what death is. When they understand that, then the situation would be different and you could tell them in a manner appropriate to the situation. But until then, it would have no meaning for them.I’m truly sorry for your loss. 🙁

  67. We never really had an opportunity to talk to our kids about death until the morning I had to walk into their bedrooms and tell them their brother died in the night.I wish I could offer some advice…I meant to…but now I’m choking up and am going to go and slink off while being accutely aware of what a big ass baby I am…

  68. I’m so sorry to hear about your Desi.I have no idea how to handle the sitch. Sorry. But like you said in the comments, there’s alot of great advice out there.

  69. I am so sorry to hear about Desi.As for the death of a pet thing. I know what you mean, not having a set of easy answers to rely on like that. However, I don’t find anything religious or too dogmatic about the “concept” of heaven being a place (whether imagined or not) where our loved ones spirits or whatever “go” when kids are this young.We don’t attend church. I school my kids (the old and the young) that there are many, many right answers out there and I will help them chose what feels right to them. When the family cat died. It was easy for Katie to hear that she went to kitty heaven. For the boys, they knew that the vet had to euthanize her and we buried her afterwards. Each answer was just what they needed, given their respective ages at the time.So, I guess what I’m trying to say is this, religion doesn’t have to dictate the concepts, you can make up your own. I really believe that.Wishing you all the best – very best.

  70. it’s what you tell her in the future that determines what she remembers from the past… for instance- when she asks about the cat and how it all ended, you LIE and tell her that you had a whole “letting go” ceremony, that you fully explained to her with gentleness and understanding the aspect of death as best can be described to a two year old… and then you tell her that in all her two year old sage wisdom, she thanked you for being so frank with her about the truth and she told you that she feels at peace with the way things ended….you do what it takes to save face, in otherwords…

  71. Wow, all this good advice.At two years-old, I think your answer was as good as anything. As she gets a little older, you might find it’s easier than you think. My kids have pretty much accepted the answer “well, she was old and lived a long life and her body was ready to die.” If they ask the next question (what happens when you die), I usually say that I’m not sure, but some people believe this (heaven) and some people believe that (no heaven). My kids have all liked making up their own minds about the subject.

  72. I’d like to echo so much of what has been said. Kids are very matter-of-fact and resilient. When my daughter was three, her aunt died unexpectedly. I was an emotional wreck and spent an hour sobbing in the bookstore trying to find an appropriate book that was simple, not scary, and not religious. I finally settled on “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf”, which is basically a nice presentation of the life cycle. When I had “the talk” I explained that her she couldn’t play with her aunt anymore, but that she could always remember the special times they shared together, look at pictures of her aunt, and still love her. I think my daugher’s reaction was to mutter “OK” and then give me a hug to help me feel better. She also went through the phase of telling everyone about her dead aunt, but it wasn’t a sad thing for her – just a change she thought people should be aware of. She’s seven now and has a much more detailed knowledge of death. I don’t think it will be as simple the next time…On a related note, I’ve heard that it is best to avoid saying that death is like going to sleep and never waking up. Some kids then become afraid of going to sleep because they over-generalize.Condolences to you and your family.

  73. I’m so sorry about Desi. My kids are 9 and 10, so I can’t sugar coat a lot these days. They visited my grandmother while in hospice, up until the day before she died. They’re very familiar with the process, but it didn’t freak them out. We’re not religious, I don’t know what we are, but it helps that there are grandparetns around to tell them about Heaven and all that good stuff. I don’t know where to begin with this stuff, like when they asked me if Adam and Eve were the first humans on Earth. I tell them my perspective, that we evolved, and that other people think this way and try to explain the religious part. This is when being a parent becomes a real challenge. Shaping those young minds is not easy.

  74. I know I replied already but I wanted to add. My girls have recently been obsessed with funerals and praying fro the dead ever since we were stopped for a funeral procession. They want to go to one now. They know when people die that they get buried in cemeteries (they wanted to bring the hamster to the cometary when it died but we convinced them that under the lilac bush would be a nicer resting place).Anyway, the oldest has been with her Dad to visit the site of his Nana. SO the questions lately have been “if your good you go to Heaven when you die, right?”. “Well was Nana bad because she went to the cemetery?” I’ve had to explain that the body is like a shell for the soul, so when you die, you body stays on earth and is put in the cemetery. It’s a place for loved ones to visit and remember you. Its more for the living. And the soul part of you goes to Heaven if your good or Purgatory if your bad.

  75. When my mom’s dog died (who my son LOVED) I struggled with the same thing since I don’t believe in “heaven”. Then my brother just jumped in and told him that Susie (the dog) had gone to heaven and that is where people go when they die. My son didn’t ask any questions and seemed happy with it. I wasn’t but it worked and we dropped it.Then my uncle died a year later and I was devestated. My son hugged me and said “Mommy I am pretty sure that he is in heaven taking care of Susie”. As much as I struggle with how to do this whole non-religion thing as a parent. That moment hasn’t left me.

  76. No heaven stories here, either. Someone told me that children don’t have a preconceived notion of death, so simple explanations are best. Although I did not explain euthanasia to my daughter when one of our cats died, we had talked about her illness as “a kind that sometimes doesn’t get better.” So I told my daughter that our cat had died that morning, and that I was very sad, and I talked about some happy times with our kitty (crying all the while). And my daughter hugged me.I don’t think it’s ever easy, and surely it’s seldom graceful, but death is part of life. I tell my daughter what I think she can understand, and sometimes she asks questions because she needs to know more. She knew enough the day our kitty died; it was sad, but it’s better to have some sadness at a loss than to have never had the happiness that precedes it.Tough topic. My sympathies about your kitty.

  77. I think the way you handled it with T as a 2 yr old is just about fine, TBH. Death is pretty tough to convey, you know? She just knows she’s gone.Now Jack is nearly 5, we’re pretty matter of fact about it. Of course, we’ve not had to deal with any real deaths or pet deaths, so who knows. I often wish we had heaven to fall back on too. And maybe we will end up going that route. Don’t know.

  78. I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. And I think you handled it perfectly. I can’t even begin to imagine how I will be able to break the news of death to Archer when one of the dogs is old enough to go. Love to all of you.

  79. My condolences. I know how hard it is to put a pet down.We’re hoping that we won’t have to explain it too much to our son. I remember as a kid watching a lot of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. There’s was a lot of death and it was put in a way that seemed totally normal. Hopefully Discovery can do that for him.Thankfully, both our dogs are very very young and are breeds with loooooong life expectancies so he may be in High School before we have to deal with sending the pups to “the farm”.

  80. I’m so sorry about Desi. Putting down my beloved cat, Jesse, at the ripe old age of 18 was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. PunditGirl wasn’t here for that, but she did live through the death of my grandmother this year. Mr. PunditMom is in the same religious situation as you. I’m not a practicing anything. Trying to explain things to PunditGirl were very difficuly — how to you explain certain things when you don’t get into the dogma and “doctrine” of a faith? She’s seven and still wants to know, even with all the explaining we’ve tried to do, when she can visit my deceased grandparents and Mr. PunditMom’s deceased parents. It almost (almost) makes me want to fall back on some of that Sunday School stuff.

  81. I try to avoid the whole heaven thing myself. I believe in an afterlife of some kind but not one with harps and angels on clouds and all that shit.That said, I’ve told my daughter when she was younger and less able to understand that your body is just a container for your soul and when your body gets too hurt or sick or old to keep living or what have you, the soul leaves the body behind and goes someplace much, much better. And when you die, you’ll see all the people that you loved who died and all your pets etc.That’s the abridged version anyway 🙂

  82. ok, I swear to god I’m not trying to be insensitive to your grief, but I am peeing myself laughing at the Jack Handy quote. D and I used to live for those weekly pearls back when we could make it past 11:30.Like you, we are not practicing any particular strand of religion. We were both raised Catholic, were married by a Unitarian, baptised O in a Catholic church and G at St. Barts by the Waldorf (Episcopal)–and I admit it was because of the cafe and the parking garage, OK?! We are religious and spiritual mutts, most likely to land on Unitarian when the boys have too many questions we’re not sure how to answer. So the death thing is tough, and uncharted territory for us. My instinct is to keep it simple, to say that this little body was worn out and couldn’t make it, but that loved ones live with us in our memories.

  83. my brother is a vet, and one day last summer he came over at about 11pm to put our yorkie to sleep. i had no idea what i mess i would be…i had to call my boss and tell him that i wouldn’t be in to work the next morning! in some ways, i’m glad that we had the opportunity to ‘do the deed’ at home…in other ways, think it made it harder. more personal, if that’s possible.anyway, i wanted to say that i feel your dilemna. i was raised without “free access to that treasure chest full of convenient faith-based answers to life’s tough questions.” i have a lot of days when i wish i would have grown up with something to believe…i envy the people that can stare the most horrible things in the face and still maintain some peace of heart because they truly believe in a higher power.but, i don’t have that.and it’s not something you can fake.i don’t have kids yet, but i do worry about this. will i let them grow up the way that i did?will i spoon-feed them something that i don’t really believe, in the hope that it will ultimately be a source of comfort in their lives?these are the questions, right?i envy the people who don’t have to make them…but, here we are.i know this is an awfully long coment, from someone who had absolutely no advice to give…i’m just another “i hear you, sister…” and hopefully that’s worth a little something.

  84. I’m so very sorry to hear of your loss. I had to put my cat to sleep right before last Christmas, and my 2 year old daughter witnessed my ‘losing it’ when I realized the time had come. The cat had been sick, and that last morning I couldn’t find him. Daughter was hovering in the kitchen with me, when the cat dragged himself in (he had lost the use of his legs overnight). At that point, I simply lost it. DH took the kids to daycare and I took the cat to the vet. Later that night, daughter was asking about Turbo (cat’s name). I simply told her that he was sick, and he’s in heaven with God. Our kids go to a Christian daycare, and, while it seems odd, they do talk to them about these concepts there. So the idea of going to heaven wasn’t completely new to her. She accepted this, and to this day she’ll still talk about that cat and how he’s in heaven with God. However, she did start to think that everytime we took an animal to the vet, they’d wind up in heaven so I have to be sure to assure her this isn’t always the case.Again, I’m so sorry – I know it’s so difficult to lose a pet.

  85. I happen to be religious, but I still don’t think I would fall back on those types of explanations for the death of a pet. You and Nate seem to have your own understanding of what’s happened. If it’s good enough for you, I would think it would be good enough for your child. Kids don’t need too much information.

  86. We talk about death all the time here for some reason. Boys, bugs, fishing, sea-life and so on. We are just always encountering dead things.But I haven’t had to deal with it yet in terms of a loss of someone we love or who is important to us.I think I’ve mentioned my husband is a pretty hardcore atheist and I’m very spiritual, but I almost never go to church or anything. We do talk about my dead grandfather (who my kids never met), and that he is with us, but in “heaven.” But they haven’t asked yet, what exactly that means. Good thing, because I haven’t yet figured out how I’ll explain the philosophical concepts without using the inane imagery and stories that are usually fed to children and that annoy me.I just asked my husband the question, and he looked at me like I have two heads and said he would just tell them the facts. “People get old (or sick) or whatever and then they die.”He’s a real source of comfort! 😉

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