General Question

Mama_Cakes's avatar

What is the best way to tell a sensitive 10 year old that her beloved cat is dead?

Asked by Mama_Cakes (9320 points ) November 8th, 2012

She is extremely sensitive. Has suffered a few loses in her short life. Her kitty got out and was missing for a few days. My sister got a call the other day that the kitty was hit by a car, had died and someone brought it to the side of the road.

My sister doesn’t want to tell her that the cat was killed. She also doesn’t think that it’s right to tell my niece that the kitten ran away, thinking that my niece will hold out hope that the kitty will come back.

How would you handle this situation?

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50 Answers

Jeruba's avatar

I think it would be cruel to let her hope that the cat might return, and won’t she hope if she doesn’t know the truth? The kindest and most responsible thing, I think, would be to say “I’m sorry, sweetheart, but Muffy isn’t coming back. She’s dead. A neighbor found her and let us know.” I’d spare her the details if possible.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

Well, it might not be the most honest or straight-forward approach, but I would just leave it as M.I.A. Kitty got out and is missing. So what if the little girl holds out hope – hope isn’t a bad thing.

I have actually had the same situation before, and I found it better to not tell the kids everything I knew. I just couldn’t break their little hearts. After a few months, they stopped asking, and accepted the fact that kitty was gone, without having to carry around the mental picture of a squashed kitty.

Cupcake's avatar

I am a firm believer in developmentally-appropriate, honest answers. I agree with @Jeruba (unless the kid wants the details… but don’t just provide them).

Then plan a memorial with the kiddo. She will think of something very sweet and clever.

SpatzieLover's avatar

One of my cats went missing when I was about the same age. I’d also been through a lot, and was a sensitive child. It killed me to not know what happened to my precious Patches. For years I’d look for her, pray for her, and sat wondering about all of the terrible things that may have happened to her.

Considering this situation, as a kid, I would have been relieved to know that she was not suffering.

I agree with @Cupcake regarding the memorial. It’s important for her to be a part of the planning.

Jeruba's avatar

One of our cats had a chronic heart problem. His life was happy but short, though he long outlived the vet’s projected lifespan (the vet gave him two weeks, and he lasted a coddled and indulged five more years).

When his time came, he got himself up onto the dining room table, and that’s where I found him in the morning. My kids were about seven and ten, and they both adored him. I said, “I have some bad news. K— is gone. He died in the night. Would you like to see him or not?” One of them wanted to and the other one didn’t. We held a little backyard ceremony later that day. It made us all feel a little better to give him a formal farewell.

creative1's avatar

This is the time to bring up the topic of death, there are many many books on the subject for kids to understand better. I would not keep that from her because I know personally when I was a child and we lost an animal it was better when my parents told me what happened instead of me looking for them to come home and calling them whenever I was outside.

wildpotato's avatar

I agree with those advising to tell her the cat is dead. My Rainbow died when I was about 9 or 10, and my mom did what Jeruba did – asked me and my brother if we wanted to see him. I did, and petted him, and I was very glad that I did. It seemed…respectful, both to me and to my cat.

Plus, there’s a possibility she might suspect the cat is actually dead and that people aren’t telling her to spare her feelings, and resent this.

Finally, on a more general note, I think that death is far too removed from modern culture, and that people, including young children, should be exposed to it. I encourage people interested in this line of thought to check out this blog (more popular video posts here) by a 28 year old LA based mortician.

gailcalled's avatar

When my sister was ten, she heard a gun shot from just around the corner. It turned out that our dog had gotten loose and hit by a car. The police came and shot the slowly dying dog. My sister was able to figure this out.

My mother lied to my sis about this; my sister was really enraged at my mother and talks about it to this day, when she is now 65.

Don’t spin fantasies; it simply compounds the emotional responses. !O year olds are very emotionally sophisticated.

@Cupcake‘s response bears repeating; “I am a firm believer in developmentally-appropriate, honest answers. I agree with @Jeruba (unless the kid wants the details… but don’t just provide them).
Then plan a memorial with the kiddo. She will think of something very sweet and clever.”

My mother told 8yr-old me, when our beloved beagle, Larchmont Jeffery, inexplicably vanished, that he had gone to live with at eponymous nice family in the country. A bad idea.

tom_g's avatar

I believe that truth and kids is a great combination. Straight up telling the kid should be tough, but better than any alternative. It might also serve as a way to allow a child to work through loss in a way that is (somewhat) more manageable than losing a grandmother or grandfather.

As for my own experience as a kid – I had a dog go missing when I was a kid. We never found him, and it was really rough for me. My mother still recalls me standing outside for hours every day just calling his name over and over. I also had a pet cat die. While I was upset, it was significantly easier to handle.

josie's avatar

When all else fails try the truth. I would say.

Coloma's avatar

I think honesty is ALWAYS the best policy, and besides, kids are very perceptive and if they sense you are being dishonest that is crazy making behavior for them, causing internal doubt that goes against their intuition. What’s worse, softening the blow or allowing a child to KNOW, on a deep, intrinsic level, that they are being lied to?
I also think it is very important to be matter of fact about death, while still being sensitive to the emotional side. My nephew who is now 32 was so devastated when his dog died at age 18 he couldn’t go to school for a week and his parents had to put him on tranquilizers!

My daughter OTOH grew up with farm pets and domestic animals and was no stranger to death. Chickens killed by raccoons and coyotes, the loss of other pets, and we always had a ceremony and buried our animals at home with much fanfare.
My daughter also lost her grandparents at age 6 and 16 and we did the same for the loss of our human loved ones. Had a big party and talked about memories of Grandpa & grandma.

The sooner children learn that death is a fact of life the better off they are, and it will save them a lot of grief as they get older. Do not lie to the child, just don’t!

Mama_Cakes's avatar

@Coloma We’re not going to tell her that the cat was hit by a car. Sorry.

Mama_Cakes's avatar

She will be told that the cat is dead.

Coloma's avatar

@Mama_Cakes Well….you know the saying…“oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Just bear in mind that she will have lots of questions and that will then cause you to have to keep lying to cover up the facts. I suppose you can tell her the cat was found dead, and nobody knows what happened, but…at 10 years old she will probably not buy the watered down version. At 5 maybe, at 10, she will have a lot of questions and she will not be easily fooled. Good luck!

Cupcake's avatar

@Mama_Cakes Why is it important that the detail about the car not be shared? just curious about the rationale… not trying to say that it should be shared up front. Of course you know her better than any of us.

What if she asks?

Mama_Cakes's avatar

@Cupcake Just wondering if she’d have a terrible image in her head. Or, perhaps, a ten year old mind wouldn’t think the way that we would..

Cupcake's avatar

My husband found one of our cats dead in the litter box one morning. I think it was last year… which would have made my son 14–15. He wanted to move the cat to the garage (basically, I think he just didn’t know what to do and didn’t want to do nothing).

I asked him to leave the cat and call the vet for advice. Meanwhile, I went up to see my son. He and I had raised the cat since he was 3 weeks old and my son found him and his sisters living in a hole in the garage roof. This was his cat. I told him that his step-dad had found little Charlie dead in the litter box. I had some tears in my eyes but tried to make this exchange about him and not me. We were sad together and relayed our surprise that he was dead at only a few years of age. I asked him if he wanted to be involved in decision making about Charlie’s remains – he did not. I asked him if he wanted to see Charlie – he did not.

I had him stay home from school and was very tender with him. He blamed himself because he saw Charlie peeing in the basement floor days before and did nothing. My husband brought the cat to the vet to run some tests… and it turned out he died of a urinary blockage. My son felt awful, although he logically understood that there was nothing that could have changed the outcome.

I wrote his teachers so that they understood the situation. I took him out to lunch. We wandered around the mall and commented on everything orange that reminded us of our little orange Charlie. I bought a stuffed orange kitty.

It was a sad, sweet, tender, precious day. I hope I never forget it.

Mama_Cakes's avatar

She lost a hamster last year and still talks about it.

She lost my Mom (her Grandma), and nearly lost her Mom in a car accident. She was adopted from China and last year was diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder. She saw a child psychologist up until last May.

Cupcake's avatar

That is an important bit of info. My little sister has reactive attachment disorder. Even though she barely knew our grandmother, she still draws her pictures and says she misses her since she died almost 2 years ago. We have no idea if the sadness is genuinely related to Grandma.

I think this is an excellent opportunity to model appropriate emotional responses, as well as let her discharge some of her angry and sad feelings. Perhaps a visit or two back to the psychologist will help.

I can understand why you might want to keep out some details (like the car). Still, make a special day of it and be as honest as is appropriate.

LuckyGuy's avatar

I’d hug her and tell her you have very sad news. Snuffles was found dead yesterday. We will hold a memorial service. Do you have a toy that makes you think of her? We can bury that right here in the yard.

wildpotato's avatar

@Cupcake I’m so sorry for your and your son’s loss. I do not write this to make you feel bad, but just so you and others who read this thread will know: there is absolutely something that can be done about urinary blockage in cats (aka FLUTD). The best thing to do to prevent it is to get a $20 cat fountain, which will encourage them to drink more, as cats have an aversion to standing water. This is especially important for male cats, since they have a very narrow and long urethra. If a cat gets blocked – often indicated, as in your story, by peeing outside the box and straining to pee – there are things that vets can do to help them. They saved my boy with aggressive fluid treatment and catheterization.

marinelife's avatar

t is best just to tell her and let her grieve. If you can recover the cat’s body, you and she could have a funeral (put the departed kitty in a shoebox).

Cupcake's avatar

@Mama_Cakes It bodes very well for her that she feels genuine affection for her pets.

Mama_Cakes's avatar

The city already picked up the body.

gailcalled's avatar

We had a full-court burial, complete with tombstone and speeches for Ratty, our white rat. When we moved, the kids (8 and 13 then) wanted an exhumation and reburial at the new house. I did draw the line.

My sister has buried all her dogs on the property and planted trees near the site.

My daughter recently cremated her sweet dog. We had two ceremonies…one in Providence where she planted a rose bush, and one on Cape Cod, where she threw the other half of the ashes into the lake.

Coloma's avatar

@ Gailcalled ^^^^ Same here, the house my daughter grew up in boasts the grave site of “The great Mt. Aukum chicken massacre” of 1997, our old family dog, with “Ruckus, a good bad dog” embellished on his headstone.
2 old cats, “The fuzzy brothers, Groucho & Jerome” euthanized together at age 16 and laid to rest in a double grave with toys and rose petals sprinkled down upon them. Then there were numerous pet rats, a couple of bunnies, ” Charlie the bunny man” & ” Ginger the bunny girl.” ” Small, Medium and Large” the goldfish trio that lived forever, on and on.

If the new owners ever start digging in the back 40 they will uncover some serious pet cemetary remains. lol

tinyfaery's avatar

Tell her the truth. Losing a pet is a very good way to teach a child about death. It’s also a good lesson in not letting your cats outside. Let her grieve and then take her to pick out a new kitten. She’ll be so distracted by the new kitten she won’t dwell on the death of her other cat.

Mama_Cakes's avatar

@tinyfaery My sister is actually going to get two kittens (siblings). Check out my FB page. Maine Coon.

Mama_Cakes's avatar

Might as well switch this over to social.

ucme's avatar

A few years back when my son was 10, the family dog at the time was suffering in her old age & the decision was taken to have her euthanised.
He loved that dog & so we thought it right that he’d be given the oppurtunity to attend if he so wished. He came along & handled the whole thing with maturity beyond his years, of course he was saddened, but later reflected that he’d have felt worse not saying his final goodbyes to her, I was so proud.
Things have a habit of working themselves out & after a couple more years we got another dog, which is nice.

tinyfaery's avatar

Picking a cat out herself could be very good for her.

Jeruba's avatar

Does the child want a new pet right away, or does she need a little time to grieve? Sometimes a well-meaning adult unintentionally implies that the deceased pet can easily be replaced, while the child isn’t ready to erase the memory or forget the specialness of the one that’s gone. It might be best not to rush.

Mama_Cakes's avatar

The cat was very much my sister’s baby, as well.

We’ll see how my niece feels about getting a new cat. She may not want one right away.

wundayatta's avatar

My daughter was twelve or thirteen when she had to make the decision to put her guinea pig down. He was sick, and she accompanied him to the vet, who told her he had a very painful condition and would die miserably in a few days or could be put out of his pain now.

She decided to have him put down. She felt like she was doing the best thing for him.

I think kids need to have a sense of control over their world. When we make decisions on their behalf, we make their world more anxious. Ironically, most people decide to do that in order to protect kids. It seems that to protect kids, we must let them be actors in the world, not keep them as children, which infantalizes them.

Kids can generally handle far more than we can imagine, I believe, if presented clearly and without prejudice. Death is a part of life, and kids will be fine with it, as long as we are fine with it. It is when adults have issues that they convey those issues to the kids, often without being aware of how the message is conveyed. Our kids respond exactly as we respond. And we need only look at our kids to see a mirror of our own responses.

Mama_Cakes's avatar

@wundayatta I agree with you there. Thank-you.

Coloma's avatar

Perhaps consider giving her a bit of a mystical perspective on death.
She is old enough to understand some “spiritual” concepts.
You can discuss, in philosophical terms, or metaphysical terms, whatever your particuarl cup of spiritual/religious tea is, to help lend a softening and understanding.
For instance, and nothing wrong with a little wonderment, you could tell her that some cultures think that when some one/animal dies a new star is born in the galaxy, or, discuss the concept of Reincarnation, Native American culture, etc.

Give her lots of different options for pondering death from a mystical/spiritual and cultural side, not just the negative emotional parts.
At 10 she is old enough to grasp some basic mystical/cultural perspectives on death instead of just focusing on the painful emotions of loss and sadness.

Bellatrix's avatar

So sad for your niece. I agree that the best option is to tell the truth – to a point. Tell her a neighbour has contacted you to say the cat was found dead, but no, I don’t think she needs the details. I had a cat go missing when I was about 18 and I still wonder what happened to her. Your little person needs to be able to grieve and not live in hope of her coming back.

Sunny2's avatar

Our first cat was killed by a car. We buried her under the apple tree with a somewhat cat-shaped stone over the grave. My 4 year old daughter was in bed crying about it. When I went in to comfort her, she said, “If Muffin could die, then so could I!” I held her close and agreed that was possible, adding, “That’s why you always need to be careful crossing the street.” As a grownup, she’s had cats, but they are always ‘indoor’ cats, not free-range.

Coloma's avatar

Reminds me of a friend whose husband concealed one her cats deaths from her and allowed her to roam around their 5 acres of property for days calling for the cat. He finally told her the truth, that the cat had been killed by getting up under the hood of his work van and mangled in the engine compartment one morning. She was LIVID that he allowed her to carry on for days, scouring the countryside and wandering around calling the cat every night.

I would be too. Actually, if you think about it, and of course, disclaimer children need to be handled with care, but…..it’s really a very selfish act to conceal this sort of thing from another. It makes it more about the deceiver not wanting to deal with the other persons emotions than the real issue at hand, coping with the reality of loss.

Mama_Cakes's avatar

Her Mom ended up telling her that the kitten died. My niece took it poorly.

My sister asked her if she would like to adopt another kitten. My niece wanted to and, instead of adopting the one kitten, they ended up adopting his brother, as well.

wundayatta's avatar

What is “poorly?”

gailcalled's avatar

^^^I was just typing the same question.

Mama_Cakes's avatar

Meaning, she didn’t take it well.

gailcalled's avatar

@Mama_Cakes: I don’t see that as a poor response but a very appropriate one. She is grieving, which is as it should be.

wundayatta's avatar

I agree ^^.

Mama_Cakes's avatar

You’re right.

wundayatta's avatar

Taking it well is crying. Now if she showed no emotion, I would be concerned. That would not be taking it well.

gailcalled's avatar

^^^I just saw the photos of the new kitties on
FB. They are really beautiful. Ave atque vale.

tinyfaery's avatar

That is a great response for someone with RAD. Watch how she deals with the new arrivals, though. Kids with RAD sometimes engage in animal abuse, but M sounds like she is doing great!

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