We’re sad to report that Fluffy, one of Albany Preschool’s pet guinea pigs, has died.
About three years ago, we adopted Fluffy and his best friend, Oreo, as a bonded pair. They were cheerful classroom residents, and the children enjoyed greeting them daily. We often brought them out to play in the soft grass, and celebrated their birthdays every Earth Day.
(Oreo and Fluffy [R] enjoying treats on their fourth birthday, April 2017)
When Fluffy fell ill, the teachers let the children know that Fluffy was not feeling well. They reported on his condition at circle time, and the children were allowed to ask questions. The children learned that Fluffy was going to see the doctor, that he was taking medicine, and that the medicine was helping a little bit. Then the medicine stopped working. Fluffy died in Teacher Susy’s arms on March 15, about a month shy of his fifth birthday.
(Fluffy in his last days, resting in his house, with Oreo nearby)
Parents and teachers spoke to the children about Fluffy’s death, and about the fact that he was not coming back. Many had questions–“Where did Fluffy go?” “Will he come back?” “Can I see him?” Some expressed emotions–“I am sad that Fluffy died.” “I miss him.” “Will Oreo be all right?”
(A note to Teacher Susy: “I’m so sorry Fluffy died”)
As sad as we are about Fluffy’s death, it has provided us with an valuable opportunity to discuss death with the children. Young children deal with death quite differently than adults. For many, this was their first experience with death. Teacher Nancy explains, “Adults tend to project loss (‘could Fluffy have had a few more good years?’), or to feel relieved that he is no longer suffering. But preschool-age children live in the present. Having less of a concept of time, they don’t carry baggage from the past (‘I forgot to say hello to Fluffy last week’) and don’t project grief into the future (‘I won’t be able to play with him next year’).” This simplicity makes the preschool years a natural time to start talking about death and loss.
Here are some suggestions for how to talk to your child about death.
Prepare children for the possibility of death. If somebody is seriously ill, let children ask questions. Talk about what’s being done to help the sick person. In Fluffy’s case, teachers explained that Fluffy was taking medicine from the doctor, but that it stopped helping and “there was no more medicine to give him.”
Keep answers short and simple.
Use clear language. It’s recommended to use the words “died” or “death.” Trying to soften the blow by saying somebody has “gone to sleep,” “passed away,” or “been lost” can confuse a child and increase fears and anxieties (for example, of going to sleep). Young children often think that death is temporary. Try saying “(s)he has died, and that means we will no longer be able to see him (her).”
Follow a child’s lead. Some children have difficulty finding the words to express their feelings or fears, and may instead play-act illness and death. Their thoughts and anxieties come out naturally in their process of play. Others have many questions. “If they are asking about the details of the pet’s death, it’s a sign that they want to talk about it. They are looking for your comfort.” -Dr. Abigail Marks, clinical psychologist
Expect more questions. Young children often ask the same questions, like “what happened?” or “when will (s)he come back?” more than once. Continue to give clear answers. “Asking the same question again and again, gives a child another chance to test our answers and gradually come to their own understanding.” -Mr. Rogers
Support their grieving. Remind children that though the loved one has died and will not return, the memories and the love we shared will last forever. Children may wish to write about their feelings or about the person, or to make cards or memorials.
What do you think? We’d love to hear your comments below.
(A beautiful memorial to Fluffy on his cage, with his class photo below)
Resources for parents
Saying goodbye: talking to kids about death. Parents.org. Accessed 4.20.2018.
Dealing with death. FredRogers.org. Accessed 4.16.2018.
When a pet dies, helping children through the “worst day of their lives.” NYTimes.com. Accessed 4.4.2018.
How to talk to kids about the death of a pet. Childdevelopmentinfo.com. Accessed 4.20.2018.
How children understand death and what you should say. Healthychildren.org, from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Accessed 4.2.2018.
Children’s books on death
Goodbye, Brecken by David Lupton
City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems
The Tenth Good Thing about Barney by Judith Viorst
The Berenstain Bears Lose a Friend by Stan, Jan, and Mike Berenstain
I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
The Forever Dog by Bill Cochran