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Explaining Death

SpeakerSpeaker Registered User regular
Hi all, I haven't been around in a (long) while, but I wanted to talk through an issue that's bedeviling me at the moment. In some ways the Help/Advice forum seemed more appropriate, but the rules governing discussion over there are pretty tight and what I really want is a more freewheeling kind of exploration.

So my family dog is at the end, and I have a four year old daughter. I'm kind of at a loss for how to explain the need to put the dog down to Maisie. Just laying it out seems a bit too heavy for a four year old, but we're not religious so the sort of inviting evasions about the dog going to heaven aren't really going to make sense to her. Complicating this is that she often sees her great grandparents who are in a nursing home, and I'm intensely conscious that how we handle the dog's passing is going to condition her ability to make sense of the much heavier stuff surrounding their passing sometime in the next few months/years.

So any reflections on your own experiences with the death of childhood pets, parenting advice, explorations of honesty with children issues etc. are welcome. How should these things be handled?

Being walkers with the dawn and morning,
Walkers with the sun and morning, we are not afraid of night,
Nor days of gloom, nor darkness -
Being walkers with the sun and morning.
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  • override367override367 ALL minions Registered User regular
    when my cat died when I was that age my mom lied and said it had run away but he'd be back someday

  • electricitylikesmeelectricitylikesme Registered User regular
    Maybe just tell her?

    She's going to spend a decent amount of her thinking life trying to come to grips with death as a concept. I think the main thing is probably to emphasize, that your dog at least, isn't going to suffer - that she's being put to sleep because she's suffering and won't get better, and is at the end of a long life.

    Which I guess is the key point: that currently at least, you can live for a long time, but not forever.

    EvigilantMagic PinkKalkino
  • syndalissyndalis Getting Classy On the WallRegistered User, Loves Apple Products regular
    Direct and gentle.

    Talk about how the family dog has had a full life, that its a part of nature for all things to pass on. Even using broad terms like "peace" are fair game without falling into religious trappings.

    Experiencing loss is also a natural part of life, and it is okay to feel sad/bad about it.

    The dog will live on in your memories of the time you had with it.

    You can probably build a really good conversation around these points that is kid-friendly and helps them cope with what will be a very sad period of time.

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  • ChanusChanus Sugoi! ^_____^Registered User regular
    The first pet that died when I was old enough to remember it, I think I was six or seven, and my parents just explained to me what was happening and I think that was the right way to go for me. They didn't make up stories or anything, and I certainly grieved the loss of a pet, but I don't know that how awful I felt would have been any better if I had been told a story about it going to a farm or whatever.

    I'm not sure a four year old will really understand what's happening, regardless, but I'm also not sure it will make a giant difference no matter how you deal with it. You might be projecting too much understanding on to your child.

    Not saying you shouldn't be delicate about it, but I don't think there's a need to sugarcoat it too much.

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  • SpeakerSpeaker Registered User regular
    when my cat died when I was that age my mom lied and said it had run away but he'd be back someday

    How'd that work out?

    Being walkers with the dawn and morning,
    Walkers with the sun and morning, we are not afraid of night,
    Nor days of gloom, nor darkness -
    Being walkers with the sun and morning.
  • Evil MultifariousEvil Multifarious Registered User regular
    Most adults can't handle the concept of death, when they really sit down and contemplate it. There are a few overwhelmingly horrible truths people inevitably learn, and I don't know if there's ever a good way to convey them. But the very act of speaking frankly and helping her confront the reality of death early in her life will probably help her deal with it in the long term. The most unhealthy thing is avoiding it.

    I still have vivid memories of coming home from school as a child and seeing my mother crying on the front step, waiting to tell me our dog had been put down. I was distraught, but it didn't last. Kids seem pretty mentally resilient in that way.

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  • ChanusChanus Sugoi! ^_____^Registered User regular
    Speaker wrote: »
    when my cat died when I was that age my mom lied and said it had run away but he'd be back someday

    How'd that work out?

    The Lady Chanus was told as a kid that her dog was sent to a farm and, apparently, never thought twice about it until I made a joke when we were first dating about something "being sent off to the farm" (I don't remember the context).

    Then it dawned on her.

    And that's the story of how I ruined her childhood twenty years later :P

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  • spacekungfumanspacekungfuman Poor and minority-filled Registered User, __BANNED USERS regular
    Kids are resilient, but even if you aren't religious, I don't think there would be harm in saying he's going to doggy heaven. You don't even need to use those words, just say something about him going to a place where he can just run and be happy forever. Four is really young to have such a hard reality explained, I think.

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  • Magic PinkMagic Pink Tur-Boner-Fed Registered User regular
    edited February 2013
    My first time with death was: we went outside on a winter morning and our cat, which my mom had thrown outside because she hates everything, was curled into a little ball, frozen to death on the lawn. She picked Fluffy up with a look of disgust and dropped him unceremoniously into a nearby trash can.

    I sobbed like a five year old bceause I was and asked her wahat was wrong with the kitty, why did you throw him away and she responded "Oh shut up he's just dead." Being a crazy religious nut she had drilled heaven into my head by then so I asked if he was going to heaven; she said no, animals don't go to heaven get in the car we're late etc etc.

    Two years later she one upped herself by showing us our german shepard who'd been run over, cold and stiff in a trash pit which they then doused with gas and lit on fire.

    So yeah as long as you do it a little less harsh then that, you'll probably be good although I don't see how you couldn't assuming you're sober when you do it. :P

    Magic Pink on
  • poshnialloposhniallo Registered User regular
    edited February 2013
    My daughter is four and understands about death. She's seen animals die, mostly insects (insects are BIG where I live). If someone she cared about died I think she would understand, but be upset and so on. It's natural for us to want to protect our children, but I don't think going through grief, all those healthy stages of bereavement that an adult should go through too, is going to damage her. You have to be careful to differentiate between damaging and upsetting. I think this is the latter, not the former.

    And anyway your daughter may well understand more about death than you know.

    I think if you just talk about it with love and honesty and support she will be fine. Not happy, mind. Tremendously upset, and that's hard for us parents. But learning to deal with grief is something she's going to have to do, you can't avoid it.

    I think euthanasia and the difference in rights between a human and an animal is much more difficult for her. In your situation I might well try to gloss over that aspect. She could get really confused. But the death part I would just be straight about, myself.

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  • ChanusChanus Sugoi! ^_____^Registered User regular
    Magic Pink wrote: »
    My first time with death was: we went outside on a winter morning and our cat, which my mom had thrown outside because she hates everything, was curled into a little ball, frozen to death on the lawn. She picked Fluffy up with a look of disgust and dropped him unceremoniously into a nearby trash can.

    I sobbed like a five year old bceause I was and asked her wahat was wrong with the kitty, why did you throw him away and she responded "Oh shut up he's just dead." Being a crazy religious nut she had drilled heaven into my head by then so I asked if he was going to heaven; she said no, animals don't go to heaven get in the car we're late etc etc.

    Two years later she one upped herself by showing us our german shepard who'd been run over, cold and stiff in a trash pit which they then doused with gas and lit on fire.

    So yeah as long as you do it a little less harsh then that, you'll probably be good although I don't see how you couldn't assuming you're sober when you do it. :P

    HOLY SHIT

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  • Magic PinkMagic Pink Tur-Boner-Fed Registered User regular
    The biggest problem you'll have is that he's not DYING, you're putting him to sleep. That a whole other ball of wax to deal with as well. Her inner sense of justice may kick in so watch for that.

  • PantsBPantsB Registered User regular
    Chanus wrote: »
    Magic Pink wrote: »
    My first time with death was: we went outside on a winter morning and our cat, which my mom had thrown outside because she hates everything, was curled into a little ball, frozen to death on the lawn. She picked Fluffy up with a look of disgust and dropped him unceremoniously into a nearby trash can.

    I sobbed like a five year old bceause I was and asked her wahat was wrong with the kitty, why did you throw him away and she responded "Oh shut up he's just dead." Being a crazy religious nut she had drilled heaven into my head by then so I asked if he was going to heaven; she said no, animals don't go to heaven get in the car we're late etc etc.

    Two years later she one upped herself by showing us our german shepard who'd been run over, cold and stiff in a trash pit which they then doused with gas and lit on fire.

    So yeah as long as you do it a little less harsh then that, you'll probably be good although I don't see how you couldn't assuming you're sober when you do it. :P

    HOLY SHIT

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  • BethrynBethryn Registered User regular
    I think what I remember most from my rabbit dying was asking if I could stroke him once more before we buried him, and just the difference - the coldness and how the muscles felt - told me a lot more than what my parents had said.

    Magic Pink
  • Magic PinkMagic Pink Tur-Boner-Fed Registered User regular
    Bethryn wrote: »
    I think what I remember most from my rabbit dying was asking if I could stroke him once more before we buried him, and just the difference - the coldness and how the muscles felt - told me a lot more than what my parents had said.

    Yeah, that's a great point. Her being there when he goes will do more then you ever could hope to do with laguage alone and it will most likely be a HUGELY positive thing. I've been there for several pets I've had to put to sleep and I was pratically fetal with grief but I'd never give up any of those experiences.

  • SpeakerSpeaker Registered User regular
    Yeah, we'll be glossing over the euthanasia aspects of this. I'm barely old enough for that.

    Being walkers with the dawn and morning,
    Walkers with the sun and morning, we are not afraid of night,
    Nor days of gloom, nor darkness -
    Being walkers with the sun and morning.
  • Magic PinkMagic Pink Tur-Boner-Fed Registered User regular
    Speaker wrote: »
    Yeah, we'll be glossing over the euthanasia aspects of this. I'm barely old enough for that.

    Honestly, I wouldn't. It's hard for someone that young to imagine a state where it would be better to have nothing then anything but I wouldn't shield her from something that's a very natural part of life.

    But you know best, she did come out of your penis after all.

  • SpeakerSpeaker Registered User regular
    Only metaphorically, thank God.

    Being walkers with the dawn and morning,
    Walkers with the sun and morning, we are not afraid of night,
    Nor days of gloom, nor darkness -
    Being walkers with the sun and morning.
  • spacekungfumanspacekungfuman Poor and minority-filled Registered User, __BANNED USERS regular
    Magic Pink wrote: »
    Speaker wrote: »
    Yeah, we'll be glossing over the euthanasia aspects of this. I'm barely old enough for that.

    Honestly, I wouldn't. It's hard for someone that young to imagine a state where it would be better to have nothing then anything but I wouldn't shield her from something that's a very natural part of life.

    But you know best, she did come out of your penis after all.

    Why put her through that too? I think it's better to just let the death be a thing that happened to the pet, instead of adding an extra, much more complex layer.

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  • Magic PinkMagic Pink Tur-Boner-Fed Registered User regular
    Ouch, bad image. Bad Speaker.

  • Magic PinkMagic Pink Tur-Boner-Fed Registered User regular
    edited February 2013
    Magic Pink wrote: »
    Speaker wrote: »
    Yeah, we'll be glossing over the euthanasia aspects of this. I'm barely old enough for that.

    Honestly, I wouldn't. It's hard for someone that young to imagine a state where it would be better to have nothing then anything but I wouldn't shield her from something that's a very natural part of life.

    But you know best, she did come out of your penis after all.

    Why put her through that too? I think it's better to just let the death be a thing that happened to the pet, instead of adding an extra, much more complex layer.

    Because she will undoubtedly learn the truth later and you run a risk of her feeling betrayed because you didn't tell her the whole truth. There's no "too early" to start dealing with stuff like death; kids can handle a lot more then we give them credit for.

    edit: That's not the "right" way to do it, mind, that's just my justification for how I would handle it. If Speaker chooses not to, it's perfectly ok.

    Magic Pink on
  • Mego ThorMego Thor "I say thee...NAY!" Registered User regular
    Magic Pink wrote: »
    My first time with death was: we went outside on a winter morning and our cat, which my mom had thrown outside because she hates everything, was curled into a little ball, frozen to death on the lawn. She picked Fluffy up with a look of disgust and dropped him unceremoniously into a nearby trash can.

    I sobbed like a five year old bceause I was and asked her wahat was wrong with the kitty, why did you throw him away and she responded "Oh shut up he's just dead." Being a crazy religious nut she had drilled heaven into my head by then so I asked if he was going to heaven; she said no, animals don't go to heaven get in the car we're late etc etc.

    Two years later she one upped herself by showing us our german shepard who'd been run over, cold and stiff in a trash pit which they then doused with gas and lit on fire.

    So yeah as long as you do it a little less harsh then that, you'll probably be good although I don't see how you couldn't assuming you're sober when you do it. :P

    I may have to go home and check on my kitties. :cry:

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  • Magic PinkMagic Pink Tur-Boner-Fed Registered User regular
    Believe me I have far more horrible stories then that. That's pretty tame for ol' mom.

    brb calling my kitties

  • ElJeffeElJeffe Moderator, ClubPA mod
    edited February 2013
    Magic Pink wrote: »
    Magic Pink wrote: »
    Speaker wrote: »
    Yeah, we'll be glossing over the euthanasia aspects of this. I'm barely old enough for that.

    Honestly, I wouldn't. It's hard for someone that young to imagine a state where it would be better to have nothing then anything but I wouldn't shield her from something that's a very natural part of life.

    But you know best, she did come out of your penis after all.

    Why put her through that too? I think it's better to just let the death be a thing that happened to the pet, instead of adding an extra, much more complex layer.

    Because she will undoubtedly learn the truth later and you run a risk of her feeling betrayed because you didn't tell her the whole truth. There's no "too early" to start dealing with stuff like death; kids can handle a lot more then we give them credit for.

    edit: That's not the "right" way to do it, mind, that's just my justification for how I would handle it. If Speaker chooses not to, it's perfectly ok.

    In my experience, little kids aren't that likely to get really angry about "learning the truth" about these kind of things (after having been told something inaccurate), especially if they learn the truth when they're still comparatively young. Honesty kind of needs to be doled out in smallish doses.

    As to the dying pet, I would just be delicately honest about it. We lost a pet when Maddie was 4-ish, and we just explained that he was very sick and unhappy, and that death would end his unhappiness. She had lots and lots of questions, which we answered as best we could. I would maybe leave out the euthanasia part for now, because it's not key to understanding death.

    Prepare yourself to be discussing this for years. Expect questions about when she's going to die, and when you're going to die, and when's grandma going to die, and what happens when you die, and so on. We just go with, "Not for a very long time," and usually that's sufficient.

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  • cncaudatacncaudata Registered User regular
    I have a 5 and 3 year old and we have talked about this a bit because my wife's dad isn't alive anymore, and grandma's cat just died. We've been very honest, just explaining that we won't get to see that person/cat again.

    The biggest thing for me, and the advice I'd give, is to let them know that it is a really sad thing, and it's ok to be sad about it, to cry about it, etc.

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  • [Tycho?][Tycho?] Registered User regular
    Tell her the truth.

    As someone with no kids, I really feel people should be open with them, especially about unavoidable facts of life. Things die. We'll die, she'll die. Shielding children from death is ridiculous. Yes it is unpleasant, but it is a fundamental nature of our mortality. She might as well get used to it sooner rather than later.

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  • [Tycho?][Tycho?] Registered User regular
    Magic Pink wrote: »
    My first time with death was: we went outside on a winter morning and our cat, which my mom had thrown outside because she hates everything, was curled into a little ball, frozen to death on the lawn. She picked Fluffy up with a look of disgust and dropped him unceremoniously into a nearby trash can.

    I sobbed like a five year old bceause I was and asked her wahat was wrong with the kitty, why did you throw him away and she responded "Oh shut up he's just dead." Being a crazy religious nut she had drilled heaven into my head by then so I asked if he was going to heaven; she said no, animals don't go to heaven get in the car we're late etc etc.

    Two years later she one upped herself by showing us our german shepard who'd been run over, cold and stiff in a trash pit which they then doused with gas and lit on fire.

    So yeah as long as you do it a little less harsh then that, you'll probably be good although I don't see how you couldn't assuming you're sober when you do it. :P

    Thats some fucked up shit right there.

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  • seabassseabass Doctor MassachusettsRegistered User regular
    I was something like 4 when we found (great) Uncle Mack dead in his home, my dad and I. We'd just gone over to grab some catalpa worms out of his tree, and dad and I stopped in to say hello. He was dead on the kitchen floor. I remember it felt like forever waiting for the police to arrive, but pop didn't say much. I asked if Mack was ok, and dad said that he was and he wasn't. It's been a while, but something along the lines of he was dead, and that being dead means you stop doing anything. He also told me death wasn't really good or bad, it just was.

    In the case of a dog needing to be put down, I think the whole "well he's alright and he's not alright" sort of makes a lot of sense. Clearly, the dog is dead, so no, not ok. On the other hand, the dog isn't suffering anymore, so that's good.

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  • zagdrobzagdrob Registered User regular
    Kids are pretty smart, and able to deal with lots of things. The biggest thing is your reaction to it.

    Last year when my wife's grandmother died, our daughter was almost two and a half. My wife and I aren't religious and didn't want to bring heaven and all that into the discussion, but planned on generally being pretty open. We told her her great grandma had died, she was old and sick, and sometimes when people are very old or very sick they die.

    We tried as best we could to answer her questions, which were relatively straightforward - mostly that her great grandma wouldn't ever wake up (she thought she was sleeping at the showing) and that she wouldn't see her again. We told her that her great grandma loved her, and it's ok to be sad and miss her.

    Basically, that was it. Answer her questions as best you can, try to avoid more complex topics, and don't be surprised if you get lots of questions about the same thing. If she asks if she's going to die if she gets sick, it's ok to tell her no, only if you get really sick / old.

    If you've made it four years, you can handle it. The big thing is to teach her that death is something that happens, and it's ok to be sad / miss the pet or person who died. Remember that it's a hard topic for anyone to deal with, and it's ok to tell her that you don't know (i.e. what happens after we die / where we go) or that we are 'at peace', 'a better place', 'in heaven', etc.

    I'd avoid discussing euthanasia just because it's a complex and difficult topic, and she's probably going to have trouble understanding the nuance that's involved with it. I wouldn't bring her in when they give the shot, but if I did I'd just tell my daughter that the dog is really sick, when we get really sick we see doctors / dogs see vets, and the doctors are trying to help and giving the dog 'medicine'.

    Best of luck to you...like I said, if you've made it four years, you can make it through this. Be ready to answer lots of questions, or even for your daughter not to have really any questions at all.

  • Rear Admiral ChocoRear Admiral Choco Registered User regular
    edited February 2013
    I would really just be honest about it

    Around the time I was four a lot of my grandfather's older brothers were dying off and over the next couple years it became a regular thing that we'd go to a funeral every few months.

    By the time our first cat died I was 9 or so and I felt a ton more grief since I knew full well what death was and this was cat a part of a family that I interacted with daily, but after a couple of days of heavy crying we all moved on from there okay.

    Also @Magic Pink I want to treat your mother to a wonderful night out and then never call her again

    Rear Admiral Choco on
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  • Magic PinkMagic Pink Tur-Boner-Fed Registered User regular
    edited February 2013
    That's pretty much what I did.

    Magic Pink on
  • Blackbird SR-71CBlackbird SR-71C Registered User regular
    Magic Pink wrote: »
    My first time with death was: we went outside on a winter morning and our cat, which my mom had thrown outside because she hates everything, was curled into a little ball, frozen to death on the lawn. She picked Fluffy up with a look of disgust and dropped him unceremoniously into a nearby trash can.

    I sobbed like a five year old bceause I was and asked her wahat was wrong with the kitty, why did you throw him away and she responded "Oh shut up he's just dead." Being a crazy religious nut she had drilled heaven into my head by then so I asked if he was going to heaven; she said no, animals don't go to heaven get in the car we're late etc etc.

    Two years later she one upped herself by showing us our german shepard who'd been run over, cold and stiff in a trash pit which they then doused with gas and lit on fire.

    So yeah as long as you do it a little less harsh then that, you'll probably be good although I don't see how you couldn't assuming you're sober when you do it. :P

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  • The EnderThe Ender Registered User regular
    I second @electricitylikesme 's suggestion.

    There's no easy way to learn that everything has an expiry date.

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  • AiouaAioua Ora Occidens Ora OptimaRegistered User regular
    zagdrob wrote: »

    I'd avoid discussing euthanasia just because it's a complex and difficult topic, and she's probably going to have trouble understanding the nuance that's involved with it. I wouldn't bring her in when they give the shot, but if I did I'd just tell my daughter that the dog is really sick, when we get really sick we see doctors / dogs see vets, and the doctors are trying to help and giving the dog 'medicine'.

    I wouldn't even bother with the 'medicine' part. Dog was sick so it went to the doctor. Doctor tried to help, but couldn't make it better. So the dog died.

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  • Element BrianElement Brian Peanut Butter Shill Registered User regular

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  • IncenjucarIncenjucar Audio Game Developer Seattle, WARegistered User regular
    Honesty is key; it's cruel to make someone learn a hard part of life multiple times. It's also good to fold in a life-positive message about how we should always show people and animals our appreciation and empathy because. Always make the last thing you say to someone you care about "I love you." even after a fight, etc.

    Chanus
  • Magic PinkMagic Pink Tur-Boner-Fed Registered User regular
    Aioua wrote: »
    zagdrob wrote: »

    I'd avoid discussing euthanasia just because it's a complex and difficult topic, and she's probably going to have trouble understanding the nuance that's involved with it. I wouldn't bring her in when they give the shot, but if I did I'd just tell my daughter that the dog is really sick, when we get really sick we see doctors / dogs see vets, and the doctors are trying to help and giving the dog 'medicine'.

    I wouldn't even bother with the 'medicine' part. Dog was sick so it went to the doctor. Doctor tried to help, but couldn't make it better. So the dog died.

    Then she'll be afraid of dying whenever she goes to the doctor. Either the doctor helps or...kaput.

  • Officer 1BDIOfficer 1BDI Registered User regular
    I think that you should be as honest with her as possible, but it still might go over her head regardless.

    My first experience with death (that I can remember) happened when I was about five. My mom kept a horse at a nearby stable that housed various farm animals, and we visited the place often. One day I was wandering around the grounds and I came across a dead chick. It had clearly been killed by one of the horses as it had been flattened in a grotesquely cartoon fashion and was still lying in the hoofprint where it had met its doom.

    I was determined it could be saved, though. If television had taught me anything, all we'd have to do was take it to a vet where the chick could be inflated back to its original shape and, *poof*, good as new! So I raced back to my parents and told them what I'd found.

    I was so angry when they didn't even try to save it and buried it behind a corral instead. I'm positive they explained to me that the poor thing was dead and couldn't be revived, but my brain refused to register it. Whether that was out of stubbornness or ignorance, I'm still not sure.

  • monikermoniker Registered User regular
    This is targeted towards an actual family member passing away rather than a pet, but I'd imagine that a lot of it will be fairly useful as most likely similar questions/misunderstandings will surface. Plus it seems like it might prepare you for things you hadn't really thought of.

    Also, even though you aren't really a Christian, you should still acknowledge that Fred Rogers was the third coming of Jesus.

  • SpeakerSpeaker Registered User regular
    Kind of winged it and things worked out okay. She wants me to print out a picture of Roxy she can color so she remembers her.

    Thanks for all your thoughts guys.

    Being walkers with the dawn and morning,
    Walkers with the sun and morning, we are not afraid of night,
    Nor days of gloom, nor darkness -
    Being walkers with the sun and morning.
    Magic PinkBlackbird SR-71CChanus
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