On grief: Dealing with death with a young child

Huddled up to her sister when she was new, and nervous.

There are milestones in a child’s life that you never hope to reach and we hit one recently: Death. One of our two beloved rescue cats died, falling sick suddenly, and beyond hope one late autumn afternoon. We know it was beyond hope, because we spent money against silly odds to be super sure, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.  Hopefully we won’t have to, because instead I spent an eminently reasonable amount insuring the remaining feline sister.  This is a sensible move I would recommend to all pet owners who’d rather not spend the cost of kitty dialysis on the new white goods they need. Instead now, we have a deceased pet, a credit card bill and a very noisy washing machine that works on only one setting.

I digress. We told lies that night. We didn’t mean to, but I don’t think either of us parents had admitted to ourselves or each other that this cat probably wouldn’t actually be fine in the morning so why would we say otherwise to the kids?

The boys bade her a cautious goodnight, and after the epic task that is bedtime, I returned to try and make her take water from a infant-medicine-dispensing syringe. Realising the folly of that task, I rang the emergency vet and off my husband went with Tyra Mary Banks, the handsomest tortoiseshell to ever roam the streets. I’ll spare you my anguished hours, but suffice to say, he returned home from holding her paw later that night declaring himself to never have felt more like a parent than at this hour.  Not at the childrens births, not on a first day at school, but now, when faced with explaining the death of beloved pet to a four year old.

At ease with a grubby little boy with chipped nail varnish

There are children living here – in this country, living the half-life of the Direct Provision system, and children who have been made homeless with their families in ever increasing numbers this year.  So to state the obvious, I know full well that my children are leading a charmed life when the loss of a pet is the biggest worry in their young lives. It was relegated to just a fleeting quizzical moment for the younger of the two:  “Where’s Ty-wa?” he asked, repeatedly and pitifully, “where Ty-wa?”

Next morning Dominic bounced into the kitchen to see her, and delighted to see her not in her basket he exclaimed “she moved! Is she better?” I backed up a few steps and let Mark explain:  She ate something she shouldn’t have when she was off on an adventure and it made her very very sick. We brought her to the vet, who tried to help her but she was too sick and she died.

My big-little boy looked so confused and so sad. His eyes welled up with tears.  You could see the questions form faster in his head than he could articulate them.

“Will she wake up?” No.

“Where is she?” The vet was going to bury her in the nice garden at the hospital (Ok, a bit cringey, but we made this sound like a nice option.  She was cremated, actually, but the cost of getting your own pets ashes back is prohibitively expensive on top of the vet fees and I also wasn’t well prepared enough to talk about cremation with him right then).

“Will she be a cat skeleton?”  Yes.  (This was an exceedingly cool thought for him so close to Halloween)

“What will happen the rest of her?”  The same thing that happens everything that dies – after a time it will break down and feed the earth, and help other living things to grow. (I had that one ready to go because it’s suitably true and comforting to my mind)

Remarkably like the scene in our living room.

By the time we got to school that morning, the loss of a pet had turned into a news item for the day.  I told the teacher what had happened in case he needed some gentle handling just as he blurted out “My cat died!” in what can only be described as an elated manner.

Hugging is always good.

Preparing for more questions, which did of course come, I bought a book “When Dinosaurs Die” to help both us and him answer them. It didn’t arrive for a week or so, by which time we’d hammered out all his major queries.

Gone, but not forgotten.

The book is simple, factual and explains that people believe different things about death, but perhaps is too advanced to read in full for Dominic’s age.  I feel like it would stir up even more questions on a topic I’d rather let lie for a while. Definitely a good book to have in your arsenal as a parent though.

What helped him greatly in the days after was drawing her picture, learning how to write her name (writing is an official Big Thing in our house right now), and me printing out the photo above for him to stick up by his bed. It’s been a learning curve for all of us, and I’m glad at least we got to ‘practise’ with a pet.


As beloved as Tyra was, the significance of her passing  was brought into perspective just a couple of weeks later when a good friend of Mark and I died suddenly. His death has devastated us, our circle of friends and most of all his wife. We can’t come to terms with the unfairness of his passing – try as they might, the Dinosaurs can’t do a damn thing for thirty-somethings. After a brief discussion we decided against telling Dom the sad news until we’re better able to deal with it.

Octonauts and the Great Birthday Cake Adventure

Do you know what we love in our house? Quinoa. And tofu, and green veg. But do you know what else? Sugar. I won’t lie. I have a desperate sweet tooth.  Every now and then though I take a figary and make some fabulous date-based treat from Susan Jane White’s Extra Virgin Kitchen book, then I promptly eat a row of Dairy Milk Fruit and Nut directly after. My willpower is not strong in this regard.

Really? Not even “Happy Birthday Jill”?

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