NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
DEATH OF A BELOVED CAT
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
Q. I am a grandparent of a very verbal and intelligent 26-month-old. He seems to remember everything told to him. He also loves my cat when he visits. I recently lost this cat to illness. How does a 2-year-old comprehend death? How can I explain my pet’s absence in a healthy manner that he can comprehend and that doesn’t scare him about losing another loved one?
A. The death of a pet is often a child’s first opportunity to learn about mortality, so hard for any of us to understand.
It’s up to us to honor children’s natural curiosity. Yet often we avoid such questions – either because we’re struggling with our own feelings about death, or because we don’t even know where to begin to help children think about it.
You’re right that children this age seem to remember everything. That’s a good way for them to learn about the world. They don’t yet know how to judge the relative importance of their experiences, all of which are stored as equally important: their dessert last night, the time they stubbed a toe, or a big brother’s favorite book.
Later, when they can tell what’s important and what isn’t, they won’t need to remember as much. Yet many adults like to think that children are too young to be affected by events such as death. Our supposition may comfort us, but it’s just not true.
Two-year-olds aren’t able to fathom the permanence of death. Instead, they expect it to be reversible. The cat will “wake up” or “come back.” This is one reason why it’s very important for you to explain as clearly as possible that when an animal or a person dies, their life stops. And it won’t start again.
This may seem like horrible news to break to a child, and may not seem necessary since the child can’t grasp big concepts like “forever.” But it’s far worse to tell a child that the pet just “went to sleep.” Bedtime fears may be the result.
Who would want to take the risk of going to sleep if it meant not waking up for days or weeks, or however long it’s been since the cat died – never mind not waking up forever?
By the same token, if you tell the child that the “angels came” to take the poor cat, the child may be terrified that the same thing will happen to him.
How can you protect a young child from fearing that other important beings will die? By explaining clearly and simply what happened to the cat. Whatever happened is probably not going to happen imminently to the child’s closest relatives, friends and pets.
“The cat died because he was very, very, very old. Much older than me. Much older than your Mommy or Daddy. Much, much, much older than you.” Or, “The cat died because he was very, very, very sick – much sicker than you or I have ever been. Most people don’t get that sick until they are very, very, very old.”
Of course there are exceptions – but you’ve been truthful and left room for them.
When a death occurs, young children worry first about whether they themselves will die, and then about the people they count on to take care of them.
Usually we can reassure children that they and their families are unlikely to succumb to whatever killed the cat. And if, for any reason, they really are at risk, then it may be time to start finding simple, honest ways to talk about what’s going on. A child’s capacity to trust is at stake.
For further reading: “Talking With Children About Loss,” by Maria Trozzi, director of the Good Grief program at the Boston Medical Center.
Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.
Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.