The PANK Perspective (Professional Aunt, No Kids) – by Diane Morris
My brother and his wife bought a pure bred Golden Retriever the year before they got married. Their dog was beautiful; long blonde hair, big paws and large brown eyes. She was rebellious and always got into trouble. She liked to eat food off the counter, maul you when you walked through the door and bark incessantly at the mailman. She seemed to mellow out a bit as she aged, but remained playful – especially with my nephew.
When he was born, the dog took to him. They became buddies; curling up on the couch watching cartoons together, camping out in a homemade fort of blankets and furniture cushions and swimming in the lake together in the summer. My nephew considered the dog to be one of his first friends.
Suddenly and without warning, the dog passed away while playing with my parent’s dog. The vet said it was a heart attack. My poor Sister-In-Law was home alone with her two boys when it happened. My parents were away, my brother and I at work. My SIL had to explain to my nephew what happened.
“Sydney got sick and went to heaven” she first told him. Questions ensued.
Thinking later that telling him that the dog was sick wasn’t the best choice of explaining what happened. She feared that telling him that would cause him worry whenever he caught a cold, or someone in the family fell ill. So, she told him that it was simply the dog’s time to go to heaven. She described a place of peace above the clouds and that Sydney would be watching over him, but wouldn’t be back to play. He was confused.
When I saw him the next day to give my condolences to my brother & SIL, my nephew blurted out, “Aunt Dee, we don’t have a dog anymore.” I told him that I knew and that I was sorry that Sydney had to leave. He just looked at me and then asked if I wanted to play tag. I chased him around the living room wondering if he missed being chased by the dog.
For a few weeks after, he didn’t mention the dog much. We figured that since he’s so young, losing the family dog didn’t affect him as much as it had his parents who had raised her over the past 6 years. Then one day he asked his Mom, “Can Sydney come home and play now?” With tears in her eyes she explained to him once again that Sydney was gone and living in heaven. She asked him if he had any questions about heaven and he said no. Then just moments later he said, “I wish I had wings like Buzz Lightyear so I could fly above the clouds and visit Sydney.”
He understood that heaven was a place above the clouds, that he needed to fly there, and that Sydney was there. But did he understand that Sydney had died?
It was heartbreaking to hear the news of the sudden death of a young dog, and to hear the honest and innocent wish of my nephew. But, there is a part of me that is thankful that his first experience with death was from the family dog and not from a grandparent. Trying to explain to a child that they will never see someone they love again has got to be one of the most difficult conversations to have with your kid. I think my SIL did a good job and pet loss was a learning experience for her to prepare her for more conversations and explanations to come about life.
How did you handle explaining death to a child? What does death look like to a 4 year old? How do you prepare for that explanation?
About the Author:
Diane Morris is a PANK; Professional Aunt, No Kids and works for Mabel’s Labels as the Sales Coordinator. She’s an Aunt to two boys, and an “Auntie” to her boyfriend’s niece and nephew. She’s a sucker for romance, country music and peanut butter.