Last spring our two family dogs Holden and Lillie passed away. They were quite old and had lived long, happy lives, but their disappearance has continued to be confusing to my toddler. Her imagination has a tendency to run wild, so I've avoided explaining that they went to sleep and never woke up or that they got sick and never got better. This could lead to many sleepless nights, and nobody wants to see a phobic toddler running around taking her temperature every five minutes. Of course we'll have to face this topic eventually, but for now I'm trying to let her understand it in her own way. She brought it up this past weekend.
Toddler: Where are Holden and Lillie?
Me: They’re not here anymore.
Toddler: When are they coming back?
Me: Well, actually, they’re not coming back.
Toddler: Can we go visit them? Are they at the pet store?
Me, trying to change the subject: No, they’re not at the pet store. But there are other animals at the pet store. Maybe we can talk to Daddy about getting another pet. Would you like that?
Me: Would you like a dog or a cat? [pause] I think I would really like a cat.
Toddler: I want a dog.
Me: OK, let’s talk to daddy about it when he gets home. But cats are easier to take care of, you know.
Toddler: Oh. [pause] So when are Holden and Lillie coming back?
Me, realizing I have to try a new approach: Well, they’re not coming back because now they’re in our hearts.
Toddler, looking puzzled: They’re in your heart?
Me, hopeful that she will understand: Yes. And they’re in your heart, too.
Toddler, laughing: Naaahh. They’re not in my heart. They’re at the pet store!
Me: OK, they’re at the pet store.