Handling a Pet’s Death, Preschooler-Style

I dreaded telling Miss Skye that Marcy had passed away.  The concept of death is hard for me to wrap my head around, let alone a child who had spent most every day of her three years of life with the cat — with whom she was obsessed — only to wake up and find out she is gone forever.  Skye staked her claim on Marcy early on, declaring that she was her “baby” and treating her as such.  Despite my initial anxiety about how the kids would treat our cats, Skye never so much as yanked a whisker or pulled a fluffy tail.

To my even greater surprise, Marcy seemed to enjoy Skye’s attention and incessant fussing.  Or perhaps she was just so desperate for love at that point — pets really do become second-class citizens once you have kids — that she was willing to take it in any form.  Even if that meant having to wear dish towels as a scarf.

In any case, Skye and Marcy were best buds.  So when I broached the subject while serving dinner to our other cat, Lucy, on Sunday, I could literally hear my heart pounding in my chest.  I had no plan, no script, no crazy suggestions from the perpetually entertaining Yahoo! Answers on how to discuss death with a young child.  (Sidebar:  I just looked some up because I can’t help myself.  One helpful suggestion?  “LET THE CHILD BURY THE CAT.”  Um, no.  Our kids’ shovels are strictly for making sand castles and hitting siblings on the head, thankyouverymuch.)  All I was armed with were shaky hands, a cloudy head and a bowl full of Meow Mix.

Our conversation went something like this:

ME:  So… Marcy isn’t here anymore.

SKYE:  (Startled)  Why?

ME:  Well, she got really sick and we took her to the doctor last night.

SKYE:  Marcy’s sick?

ME:  Really sick.  (Deep breath, choking back tears)  She died, honey.

SKYE:  Oh!  (A look of sadness, then:)  I only have one kitty now!

ME:  That’s right.  We’re all very sad.  It’s okay to be sad…

SKYE:  Yeah.  (A second later)  We feed Lucy now?

THAT WAS IT, PEOPLE.  Where were the tears?  The confusion? The increasingly distressed and hard-to-answer line of questioning about The Meaning of Death?  Heck, a twisted seat belt gets more tears and drama from Skye than our poor Marcy dying.  On the one hand, I was relieved Skye appeared to take it so well.  But on the other?  I have to admit, I was little ticked on Marcy’s behalf.

Oh, she probably just hasn’t fully processed what death means, I told myself.  She may just think Marcy is sleeping at the doctor’s office or something.

Not content to let my daughter remain unfazed and well-adjusted — hey, I didn’t want to be the only one with a tear-stained face and red eyes around here — I may nor may not have needled her a bit at breakfast this morning.  Because that’s the kind of nurturing mother I am.

ME:  (Making the sad eyes)  I bet Lucy’s really sad without Marcy around, huh?

SKYE:  (Matter-of-factly) Yeah.  Marcy died.  She’s gone.

And that was that.  Five minutes later, Skye proceeded to cry at the top of her lungs because I put M&Ms in her pancakes instead of chocolate chips.  Displaced grief or simply the outrage of a chocolate expert’s offended delicate palate?  It’s hard to say for certain; I’ll have to look it up on Yahoo! Answers.

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Candy Kirby

Candy Kirby is the founder of The Laughing Stork and a professional fun-maker who will never stop chasing her lifelong dream: to find the Pomeranian or porn star after whom her parents must have named her. A humor columnist for Disney, Nickelodeon, Scary Mommy, Reductress and Redbook, she also used to be a staff writer for the soap opera, The Bold and the Beautiful, where she penned many scripts featuring prolonged heated stares and countless “Who’s the Daddy?” story lines. Candy lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two young kids and three rescue Persian cats, the latter of whom are the real brains behind this operation (so send all complaints to them).

11 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Sending you love and hugs. Reading about Marcy’s passing made me cry, too. I only “met” her through your blog, but I know the pain of losing a beloved kitty. <3
    (Sorry I didn't comment before; my new baby is a little nurse-meister and is almost always attached!)

    • Oh, thank you, DayeLily, and CONGRATULATIONS! I remember those “attached” days all too well. Hope you’re both doing wonderfully!

      • Thank you! The Benevolent Dictator and his new brother, Baby Booby Bird, have formed a brotherly pact that Mommy Needs No Sleep. Good thing they are so darn cute!
        Sending love and hugs your way…

  • OMG Candy…well, I had tears for her reading this! One of my inlaws dogs passed away last year that my then 5 year old grew up with and he was initially unfazed by the whole thing. It ended up hitting him a few days later, but, I think he was just at that age where he started to understand a little more about death. I would assume my 3 year old would have the exact same reaction as Skye if our dog died…actually, my 3 year old would be far more concerned with what HE was going to eat for dinner vs another pet! 🙂 Take care – and thanks for sharing the story!

    • Thanks, Missy! You’re so right — three-year-olds are a bit too consumed with their own world to process much of anything else!

  • I’m still so sad for you and your loss of Marcy. And I’m not even a cat-person. And if it makes you feel better, the other day my son asked, “Mommy, what would happen if Daddy died?” I wasn’t quite prepared and started to stammer out an awkward reply when he cut me off and said, “Will you get me a new Daddy? Will he make pancakes too?” So maybe children do process death through pancakes.

    • Thanks, Wenmei. And I’m sure your husband appreciates knowing he could so easily be replaced! It really is all about the pancakes…

  • Our son was 2.5 when our 15-year-old cat died (the day before his sister was born too! eek) and although he didn’t seem very upset when we delivered the news, what surprised me was how often (and for how long) he continued to make statements about our beloved Spot. Sometimes the statements were very matter-a-fact and sometimes they were super sweet, but he STILL brings up Spot randomly–and that was over 2 years ago!

    (sorry, that was a long way to say…) you just never know when Miss Skye might surprise you with some comments about Marcy.

    So very sorry for your loss, Candy!

    • The day before his sister was born? Oy! Talk about an emotional time for all of you. And you are so right — just this morning, Skye said “maybe the doctor will bring Marcy back when she’s ready.” Again, not sad, but matter-of-fact. But it broke my heart. We’ll see how she continues to process it.

      Thanks for your kind words!

  • It seems that–for kids around Skye’s age–if they don’t see it, it won’t affect them too much. At least, Skye is left with wonderful memories of Marcy and the time you put M&Ms in her pancakes.