It was difficult to know what/how much to tell Joel about Howie. The morning after we put Howie down, I probably did everything child psychologists tell you NOT to do as it relates to explaining death to kids… I first didn’t say anything at all. Then, when Joel, with a confused look on his face, went to go feed Howie, I explained, “Howie took a vacation.” He seemed to accept this much to my relief.
Then one of my friends texted, “Christine you have to tell him the truth.” And I knew she was correct because I had read this before. Also, I knew I’d have to say the actual words, “Howie died,” to avoid confusion, as when speaking about death to children, you aren’t supposed to speak in uncertain terms – things like, “He passed away, is in heaven, is our guardian angel, is looking down on us from the sky,” can lead to confusion in young children because such concepts are too abstract.
In the process of trying to find Howie a new home, Mark had stumbled upon a breeder hoping to re-home their own (docile) three year old chocolate labradoodle (we prefer doodles because of our allergic tendencies). The dog was four hours away from us, and, although it was a bit soon, we decided we’d go get this dog on the following Sunday (Howie died on a Thursday night), mostly for Joel’s sake (he loves caring for a dog more than anything in this world, possibly). Anyway, the breeder had called this dog Brownie, but we decided to rename her Winnie.
So we met the dog on Saturday, spent the night out of town in a hotel and slept on the decision and then decided to take Winnie home with us on Sunday. We kind of talked about Winnie being our new dog (once we knew she would be) throughout the weekend, but when it was time to pick her up, I told Mark, “We have to actually tell Joel what happened.”
“Okay…” Mark kind of agreed.
Finally, we loaded Winnie into our vehicle and said goodbye to her former owners, and I unilaterally decided that now was the time. I figured I’d just get it out of the way, because there was no way that Joel, at just over age two, would remotely understand anyway. So I said, “Joel… So listen we have something to tell you… So Howie died. So he’s never coming back. It’s very sad……………. (long pause)……………. So now we have this nice new dog, Winnie!”
Cue ten minutes of screaming and tears from Joel as we’re driving, and cue arguing between Mark and me.
“I wanted to tell him when we got home!!” Mark yelled, “So we could give him a hug! Now he’s just stuck alone in his car seat!”
“I didn’t actually expect him to be upset! How could I have predicted this!?”
Anyway, the crying eventually subsided, and we arrived home, and Joel quickly warmed up to Winnie, and life returned to normal, and besides feeling some more of my own sadness re: Howie’s death, I didn’t really think much about Joel’s processing of it as he seemed more than happy with Winnie and doesn’t yet have the verbal skills to have a reciprocal conversation about Howie or like ask me questions or anything.
Well then like a week later I attended support group and stayed late talking with a couple of the other moms as well as the bereavement nurse. We talked mostly about how young children process the death of their siblings but because Howie had just died, and I know these women outside of group, this entered the conversation as well. It was a dark conversation, but humorous (in the darkest way possible), only because we could each relate to, for example, things like the struggle over just how much to tell your living kids about a cemetery… Like do you explain that there is actually a body underground? (Not yet, we decided.) There was also a lot of talk (because these two moms have living kids older than mine) about how kids often say socially inappropriate things in public about their dead siblings.
ANYWAY, (because Joel is still very young and also a bit behind in speech) I confidently declared, “Well, I don’t have to worry about this yet, because even if Joel understands Howie’s (or Matthew’s) death, it’s going to be a long time, probably like a year, before he says anything about it, at all, whatsoever.”
Well, the very next day my mom came to visit and excitedly met Winnie. “What did you tell Joel? That Howie passed away?” she whispered.
“I just said, ‘Howie died.’” I whispered back, while Joel played nearby in the living room.
Well not even two minutes later I heard Joel say something that I thought sounded like the word die. But I could not be sure, because while Joel is starting to say more words, he also still just experiments with sounds. But then Joel started frantically pointing at Howie’s picture…
“What?” I asked, breaking away from the conversation with my mom, “Oh Howie?!”
“DIE,” Joel made the sound again.
I tried something bold, asking Joel a question I thought he couldn’t answer, at least not with spoken words, “What happened to Howie?”
“DIE!!!” Joel yelled, clear as day, and beautiful, almost as though he were singing it (think Josh Groban, You Raise Me Up beautiful), grinning ear to ear.
“Winnie,” Joel then said.
“Yes,” I said, “And now we have Winnie.”
This went on for a while… Joel pointed to Howie, I said, “Howie,” Joel yelled, “DIE,” paused, and then said, “Winnie,” and I confirmed, “Yes, now we have Winnie.”
Of course, one of my kid’s first words would be die. (And Joel’s speech has since taken off, so apparently Howie’s death has also sparked something in him developmentally?!)
And some more weeks have passed and this is still a thing… First of all, Joel seems to know some of the synonyms for die.
We can say, “Passed away.”
Joel yells, “DIE!!”
“Killed.” (I try to avoid this one, but I, in the earlier days, expressed some guilt that we “put Howie down” thus essentially killing him even though it wasn’t really our choice. I’ve since banned myself from using this word. I’m worried it’s too late though and that Joel somehow already thinks that Howie was bad so we “killed” him. What if he thinks this? I don’t think he does. But what if he does?!)
“Had to put down.”
Joel also has super stealthy hearing or something… If anyone mentions Howie’s name within 30 yards of him, he quickly stops everything he is doing and yells, “DIE!!”
He even tells other people to whom he’s never before spoken. The other day a neighbor asked, “Where’s Howie?”
“DIE!!” Joel yelled in the Josh Groban voice (this is an exaggeration, but STILL), beaming.
“Oh that’s very sad,” said our neighbor, curbing his enthusiasm.
“Winnie,” Joel pointed down.
“Yes, now we have Winnie,” Mark explained, introducing Winnie.
So now Joel’s convinced that when something dies it’s just immediately reincarnated as some new being too, I guess. (Or perhaps we’ve taught him that when creatures die they are replaceable?) Also, in the past month we’ve had to explain to him that Matthew died (because we can’t make Howie’s death the most important thing when his brother also died), Howie died (so far this is the only death on which he focuses), and his tomato plants died as well (which Mark actually chopped these down for the winter, so OMG there). I’m just worried that we’ve already screwed all of this up.