Explaining death to a 5 year old is HARD. A lot harder than I thought it would be. And we tried to approach the subject with care. Not only did we lose our dog in January, but Luke's preschool teacher (his 3's teacher) was murdered in January too. I'm sure if you're local you saw the news reports about the sweet older couple who traveled to South GA on a craigslist ad. Mrs. June was such a blessing to our family and there isn't a day that goes by that I'm not thankful for her influence.
Although these 2 events are absolutely not comparable, to a five year old losing anything is scary. We also lost a family friend in December and I felt it was appropriate to tell Luke that he went to heaven. We talk about heaven frequently... but we had no idea what January would hold for us. Here's a little back story and then I'll explain how we approached the subject with him.
How it happened...
At the beginning of this year we had to say goodbye to our beloved dog. We adopted her before we were married so she literally had been with us every day of our married life.
We noticed in December that she became incredibly picky about food. We just thought maybe it was her age, or maybe her teeth hurt, or maybe she just didn't like her food anymore... we took her to the vet and they agreed everything looked good. She hadn't lost any weight, and they thought maybe her stomach was upset, so they gave us some medicine.
The 2nd weekend in January we noticed a significant slow down. She just seemed uninterested.
She was still around us downstairs, and she still got excited when we came home, but we could tell something was wrong. She was also vomiting, a lot. We realized pretty much everything she ate was coming up (in the timespan of a Friday night-Sunday night). I decided to call the vet first thing Monday morning.
By Monday it was clear that she was not well. You could tell she had lost weight and she was just listless. I had that sinking feeling all weekend that I just couldn't shake and part of me hoped Sunday night that she just wouldn't wake up so we wouldn't have to deal with making big decisions Monday morning. I was a basket case.
My biggest prayer was that we would have clear evidence to make the right decision. That sounds silly, but I didn't want to give up on her if she still had life to live. I also didn't want to extend her life selfishly. When we arrived the vet examined her and gave us 2 options. She said that they could do an X-ray and check for a blockage, or do a full panel blood test to check her organs. I wanted to do what was smartest while remembering we don't have all the money in the world. Truth was that if the blood test came back great and showed fully functioning organs, then we would have done an X-ray. But without knowing organ function she wouldn't have been able to undergo surgery. So the blood test was the most cost effective and painless way to check her status.
When the results came back my prayer had been answered (not necessarily the way any of us wanted). Her kidneys were failing. All her levels were 3 and 4 times the normal level. While we don't know what caused the kidney failure the vet said that it can simply be hereditary. Diets can also play a role, but since it came on so suddenly she leaned more toward genetics.
The vet said we could take our time making the decision, but that any type of treatment wouldn't be in her best interest. I scheduled the appointment to put her down (later that evening) and took her home for one more day.
I walked out to the van, loaded her in the back and closed the hatch NOT EVEN THINKING that I had put my purse in the back with her. Since I hadn't actually unlocked the van, when the hatch shut I had mistakenly locked my keys (and our dying dog) in the van. I was mortified, and basically melted into a puddle of tears.
All the emotions from the day and my inner perfectionist came out. I dragged myself and Emberly back into the vet. And between sobs, I explained what happened. Because of all the new technology, I'm not supposed to be able to lock my keys in. I have a keyless start, and it can sense the key in the vehicle so if I try to lock the fob in all the doors unlock and the horn goes off. So the fact that I had just locked my keys (and the dying dog) in the van was enough to make me really confused.
The vet assured me that this happens all the time (yeah right) and since there was a pet in the car the fire department would come unlock it for free. They will also do this if you mistakenly lock your kids in. Who knew?
All this time Luke was at school and I was rushing to make it to pickup on time. This is when I had to tell him HOW sick she was. I could have waited until after she was gone, but I felt that since he would likely remember this, I wanted to give him the chance to say goodbye.
We hugged and kissed and loved on her the whole day. She was NEVER allowed on furniture (although I'm sure she'd sneak a nap when we weren't home), so we let her rest on the chair the whole day. She didn't budge.
Josh got home from work and knew what had to happen. Our appointment was for 5:50pm. He took her out for a walk one last time and then I told Luke that she was going back to the vet. We did NOT talk about "putting her to sleep" and we didn't say that he "wouldn't see her again". I also didn't make false promises like "Give her kisses, she'll be home soon". In his mind she was simply going back to the vet.
At his age I don't want him to think "we killed her" or that anything was "premeditated". That feels weird typing that. He doesn't understand that putting her to sleep is the kindest and best thing that we could have done for her.
We told him she was going back to the vet because she was VERY sick. I told him that there was a chance she may go to heaven and that he needed to say goodbye. He hugged and kissed her and told her that he loved her. It was precious. And while I thought he was going to have a hard time, it didn't affect him nearly as bad as I thought it would.
The absolute hardest part for me was the fact that Sadie didn't want to get in the car. It was like she knew what was about to happen. She stopped at the threshold of the house and garage and wouldn't budge. She LOVED going for car rides and it was as if she knew she was leaving and never coming back. I lost it.
Luke asked me multiple times the next few days "why I was crying" and I'd simply answer: "I just miss Sadie."
Josh took her and stayed with her the whole time. While neither of us REALLY wanted to be there, we knew one of us HAD to be there. There was no choice really. When you love something that much, you can't walk away during the hard times. #10 hits me in the feels- big time. Josh said I wouldn't have made it. It was way harder than he ever anticipated.
Thankfully Luke was on his way to bed when Josh got home. I prayed that he wouldn't realize that Josh came home without our dog. And he didn't. Luke is VERY perceptive, and asks ALOT of questions and I didn't want to beat around the bush that night (simply because of my emotional state), but I also didn't want to scare him before going to sleep.
What we said...
The next morning he realized that Sadie wasn't there and asked about her. I told him that she went to heaven last night. He asked "what happens when you die?" and I just said that Sadie closed her eyes and went to sleep. I told him she wasn't in pain, and that she no longer felt icky.
And that was it. He never asked what happened to her body, or any details about her death. I am incredibly thankful for that. My best advice is to let them lead the conversation. I fear that I would have said too much if I had led the conversation.
We chose to have Sadie cremated. We decided this before she actually passed so the cremation people would be there to immediately take her body. And looking back, I don't think either of us would have emotionally been able to bury her. My parents offered a spot in their huge back yard, but we wanted to have her with us and bury her eventually at our "forever home". We don't have a yard here.
I made sure to only make/take phone calls between the vet and cremation place while Luke was in school or asleep. Again he hears EVERYTHING and would have asked more questions based on those conversations. The place that cremated her (Dreamland for locals. It's an amazing place!) sent out a VERY good email with how to talk to kids about death and cremation. Also the receptionist who I talked to a few times was so caring and understanding and asked if we had kids and if I had any questions. The premise of the email was not to talk about "fire or burning" but to leave it to "reducing the body to ashes" and terms like that... someday I'm sure Luke will realize that he never knew what actually happened, and I am ready for those questions (more now than I was when it happened). But he is not old enough to fully comprehend what really happened.
When we brought "the box" home, Luke did notice and he asked what it was... and I simply said "a new decoration." I felt that saying: "Sadie" or "our dead dog" would have been oversharing and could scare him more. So until he can fully comprehend death I am sticking to that!
How we're dealing now...
Overall it wasn't NEARLY as hard as I thought it would be. Because we believe in heaven (whether animals end up there or not) he was fully satisfied with that answer. And for that I am thankful! In the months that have followed he has mentioned her a few times. I want him to remember her and the memories he had with her so we still keep her in conversations. Like "remember when she used to chase the tennis ball up that hill?" or "remember when she would bark every time a truck would pass?" We've kept her pictures up in our house and he'll randomly say "I miss Sadie."
We added a new furball to our home last month. It was nice giving ourselves a break from a dog for a while (they are pretty high maintenance-- especially puppies) but it was time for a new one. We also adopted Ella from the Humane Society. She is also a lab mix, but after her visit to the vet he is almost sure she is a Belgian Malinois (pronounced Mal-in-wah). They are shepherd dogs and kin of the German Shepherd. They are becoming increasingly popular for police and military dogs (although we didn't know that when we got her). We fell inlove with the brownish/red dog in a shopping cart. We went to the Human Society's adoption day and her foster brought her in and we grabbed her before they even had a chance to put her in the cages. It was love at FURst sight ;) .
So, we're starting over. Potty and crate training. And we get to love another! She is training incredibly well (sits, lays down, and has starting ringing her bells when she has to potty). She is full of life. I can't wait to watch the kids grow up with her!