It was difficult and extremely painful, but we told the truth—our pet didn’t run away, he died.

By Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic
Author Stephanie with her pet cat Marmalade in 1979
Courtesy of Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic

When my family moved from Washington, D.C. to Minnesota, we brought three of our four cats with us. Cinder, the cat who didn’t come with us, had run away before the move and never came home again.

That’s what my parents told us, but it wasn’t the truth.

In Minnesota, I lay awake listening to my mother call our other cats in for the night and agonized over the vision of Cinder coming back home to our house in D.C. only to discover that his family had deserted him. I worried that Cinder would think we never loved him. And that he would have to live outside, fending for himself in the wild with no family to care for him. These are the thoughts that haunted me for years.

It was only when I was an adult that I learned what had really happened to Cinder: he had been hit by a car and killed right before our cross-country move. Telling us he had run away was my parents' way of protecting us from what they deemed a harsher truth.

But as a parent who has already walked her own small children through the valley of pet death, I think it’s possible that as much as my parents thought they were protecting us, they were also protecting themselves from having that difficult and sad conversation.

I was three when we left D.C. Almost the same age my oldest son was when he would have his first pet-death experience.

Stephanie's oldest son, Henry, with Peeky the Guinea Pig.
Courtesy of Stephanie V.W. Lucianovi

Poppadum, our sweet and scrappy orange tabby cat was diagnosed with cancer and congestive heart failure at a relatively young age for a cat. Compounding our grief in the days after Poppadum’s diagnosis was the concern of how we would talk to our four-year-old about her death. Not if we would talk about it, but how. Because there was no question of being anything but completely honest with him about Poppadum.

We talked to his pre-school teacher who told us, “Give him information as he asks for it, but don’t give him more than he asks for.”

We also got books like The Tenth Good Thing About Barney and City Dog Country Frog to help us walk him through whatever emotions he might have. We brought boxes of tissues to our read-alouds and our spirits quailed more than once when thinking about how young our four-year-old was to be dealing with such an upsetting event.

In the end, my husband and I were the ones who used all the tissues because when we told our four-year-old that Poppadum had died and wouldn’t be living in our house anymore, he didn’t shed a single tear. This isn’t because he’s some made-of-stone automaton. In fact, according to our pre-school teacher, the lack of profound grief or sadness over death is developmentally typical for the age. “At his age, it’s difficult for kids to grasp the concept and finality of death. Therefore they don’t see it as sad,” she explained.

However, choosing to go the truth route with Poppadum’s death got so much harder for us when our four-year-old seems to go through the denial stage.

More than once, I had to tell him firmly, "No, she's dead. Poppadum died. She's not coming back.” In response, our four-year-old patted my hand and countered with, "But she'll get better, Mama. Don't worry. She'll come back." It would have been much easier on us if we had just agreed with him instead of having to repeat the horrible words.

”No, she's dead. Poppadum died. She's not coming back.”

”No, she's dead. Poppadum died. She's not coming back.”

”No, she's dead. Poppadum died. She's not coming back.”

But we did. It was difficult and extremely painful, but we told the truth.

A few days later, we overheard our four-year-old gently explaining to our remaining cat that Poppadum had died and wasn’t coming back.

Stephanie's youngest son, Arthur, with Poppadum
Courtesy of Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic

And that made my husband and I cry some more. In fact, crying openly and prodigiously over Poppadum’s death was something else we were honest about. We made a conscious decision to be open with our feelings to help normalize the emotions that come with the grieving process.

To give our four-year-old permission to feel sad and to express that sadness.

To let him know that having those emotions wasn’t something to be ashamed or scared of because we all—even adults—have them.

I think we did all of that right. We didn’t tell him lies about Poppadum running away to live on a farm and we made a point of letting him see that we were sad too.

However, the one thing I think we might have gotten wrong was that we didn’t read books about pet death to our son until we knew he was about to experience it.

And, in fact, it’s entirely possible that if we hadn’t been about to lose a beloved cat, we might have avoided books about pet death for years until we were forced into a conversation about it. We treated the books as prescriptive, only seeking them out when we needed them instead of allowing them to naturally occur in our home library, inviting discussion, questions, and normalization.

I don’t think we’d have been the only parents to do it, either. It’s perfectly in keeping with the maternal and paternal instincts to want to shield your child from all harm, including anything that might make them sad.

But what I have come to realize is that while restricting access to those books might protect us as parents from going through the trauma of having the difficult conversations, and while we might tell ourselves we’re doing it to protect the child from experiencing sadness themselves, we’re also denying the child the opportunity to deal with death, grief, and sadness within the safe and fictional confines of a book. A book they can close, put down, and walk away from while their brain goes on mulling over and processing what they read.

When we go out of our way to protect children from the reality of a pet’s death by curating their bookshelves or making up stories to obfuscate the reality until we deem them “old enough” to handle the truth, we need to stop and ask ourselves who we’re really protecting: them or us?

Every parent must make the choice that’s right for their family. For my family, I know we’ll be doing things slightly differently going forward.

Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic is a children's author, and The End of Something Wonderful: A Practical Guide to a Backyard Funeral, is her first picture book. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.

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