Our Family Dog Died: How We Explained it to the Kids

How we helped our children process the devastating loss of their pet, and how you can too.

Stella died on a cold, snowy Monday when the kids were at school. After it happened, we wondered how we could we explain to the kids that the dog died in a way that they would understand. We knew we needed to figure out what to say and how to say it so their little minds could process the event, and grieve if needed.

Stella, our 12-year-old boxer, was our first baby; our fur baby. We got her a few months before we were married. Stella gave us the first taste of selfless love. Being 24 years old, we were new to the real world, and free as a bird. For the first time, we were responsible for someone else other than ourselves. For the first time, we felt unconditional love.

How to Explain to Kids the Dog Died
Stella with her mom, dad, and first brother in 2010.

When the day came that Stella was no longer living a comfortable life, we chose to have her put down at our home. Eric and I held her as she breathed her last breath. We held her as she grew still, knowing she was finally at peace. This deep sleep was the most rest she had in months, albeit one she’d never wake from. She was now free of her confusion, her pain, and her distress. We wrapped in her “blankie”, and carried her out of the house together, just as we had carried her into our home 12 years earlier. Eric and I placed her in the back of the on-call vet’s truck, kissed her “fuzzy mugger” one last time, and closed the door. We watched as the vet drove off. That was the last time I saw my first baby.

After she died, we needed to take care of ourselves first.

The house was cold and empty. We needed to leave. We needed to take care of our mental and emotional health. Our kids were due home in 4 hours, we could figure out how to explain it to them before then. Just like on an airplane, the parent must put on his or her oxygen mask first before helping the child. We needed to breathe and recover. We were thankful for that time alone together, realizing other parents in similar situations might not have it.

We grabbed lunch (and a beer, because it was so, so very needed). We toasted to her life. I wondered how we would explain to the kids that our family dog died. I did a quick Google search, hoping to find some blog post with tips or ideas. That is when I found a children’s book named Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant. I saw the great reviews from other parents in the same situation and knew this would be the perfect book.

How to Explain Dog Died to Kids
Dog Heaven, by Cynthia Rylant (Blue Sky Press, 1995)

I began my desperate calls to local book stores to track down this book. I located one at a nearby Barnes and Noble. We made the trek to the book store where they were holding it for us. The cashier looked at our puffy-eyed faces and said, “I am so very, very sorry.” I explained to her that I was just so thankful we had found a way to explain to our young children (3 and 5 at the time) where Stella had gone. She said they typically keep this book in stock for this very reason, but that we were lucky to have nabbed the last copy. *phew

The afternoon together was needed. Our lunch out and time together helped us gain composure so that we could explain to the children without freaking them out with uncontrollable sobs.

When the kids got home, it was time to explain.

That evening, when the kids got home, we waited to hear how their day was. We asked about their activities, sat them down with a snack, and kept normalcy for the time being. Once they had settled in, Eric and I let the kids know that Stella had gone to heaven while they were at school.

My 5-year-old asked “Can we go to heaven to see her?”
“No,” I responded, “people like us can’t go to heaven yet.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“Well, because we are not ready for heaven. Heaven is for those who have died. Mommy, Daddy, you, and your brother are alive.” I stumbled.

Then, this question came. The question that broke my heart to this very day.

“Mom?” asked my 5-year-old. “Who is going to walk Stella to heaven? She can’t walk alone. She will be scared.”

How to Explain to Kids the Dog Died
Just a dog and her boy.

We sat them down to read Dog Heaven. We did not read the book ahead of their arrival. As we went page by page, we found ourselves smiling through tears. I mean, how could we not? The book let us know that God serves kitty-cat and squirrel shaped biscuits in heaven. Oh, how Stella despised squirrels. Dog Heaven let us know that the dogs could run free and bark at the geese. Ha, she used to chase those in the bay. And sometimes, an angel could walk a dog back to Earth for a little, invisible visit to watch her kids play. Oh how I hope she will, I thought.

This book had helped my children and my husband and me.

We read the book on a nightly basis for awhile. The kids had pictures of Stella in their rooms. As the days passed, the questions slowed. They went on to their everyday lives. Stella wasn’t part of their day anymore, and all seemed fine.

How to Explain to Kids the Dog Died
Stella and her boys. Always keeping a watchful eye.

The blessing and curse of being a young child is that their lack of understanding confuses them, but it also prevents them from overthinking. Unlike my husband and me, the kids weren’t questioning the decision to put her down. They weren’t wondering if she truly went to heaven. They didn’t question whether or not they killed their dog like we were. They went about their day and accepted it. In a way, their innocence saved them from the pain we as their parents were faced with. And after thinking about it, isn’t that what we as parents aim to do for our children? Don’t we all try to preserve the innocence and shoulder the pain as long as we can? They have the rest of their lives to feel pain. Today they can play and read about how wonderful it is for Stella in dog heaven.

If I could rewind time, I would change one thing.

If we could do one thing differently, it would be to buy the book in advance. I can’t imagine what we would have done that night without it. I don’t know how we would have explained heaven as well as Cynthia Rylant did in Dog Heaven. It was the perfect blend of bittersweet, and a wonderful story to send off our Stella. It truly helped us explain to our kids that even though our dog died, she was in a better place. Today, it sits on their book shelf, ready for them if they have questions.

While we wished Stella could have gone on her own terms, we now are at peace with the choice we made to put her down. She no longer found enjoyment in her life and we could no longer selfishly keep her with us. It was a deep, unconditional love we had for our Stella . She loved us and her boys fiercely.

We will wait in hopeful anticipation that she’ll meet us on the other side, wiggling her butt, when it’s our time to join her.

One of the happiest sights in the world comes when a dog is reunited with a master he loves. You just haven’t seen joy till you have seen that.

Eldon Roark
How to Explain Dog Died to Kids
Stella Luna 2004 – 2016

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