Louisville has taken the unexpected death of 3-year-old Scotty the elephant with a very heavy heart. The last time I saw him, just weeks ago, I'd taken my daughter to the Zoo with a friend. Scotty was next to the fence playing and showing off his trunk skills with a broken tree branch. He would pick that stick up, slinking his trunk around it, and knowing we were all watching, put it in his mouth like a proud boy, only to drop it so he could show us again.
As I've struggled to assemble an explanation about Scotty's death, and the concept of death in general, for my preschool-aged daughter, I wondered what's healthy for all of our kids in facing our loss of Scotty. So, I enlisted the help of Dr. Tanya Stockhammer, clinical psychologist specializing in child, adolescent, and pediatric psychology, of StrongMinds Child and Adolescent Psychology Services.
If you have a child who's not had any previous exposure to death, Dr. Stockhammer says that introducing death as a part of living, gently and honestly, is the best way to approach the subject. "Using examples of the natural life cycle is a good place to start: seasonal changes, a bug's life. Together with a matter-of-fact, age appropriate interaction of death and dying, it is critical to discuss the thoughts and feelings associated with those experiences.
"One of the reasons we adults sometimes don't do a great job of teaching our children about death and dying is because of our own discomfort and fears. Books, pets, visits to farms, zoos and natural environments can all help children learn." Noting that if a child's first experience with death is someone a child was particularly close to, Dr. Stockhammer says, "at such times, modeling and guiding in a more direct way is necessary."
Many of us remember Scotty's birth, and through either our own Zoo visits, or through media, we've all watched him grow. In a way, it seems Scotty belonged to us all, and as Dr. Stockhammer reminded me, it was the community that named him. "After Scotty's birth, we went from 'seeing the elephants' to 'visiting Scotty.'" Because we all felt as close to Scotty as if he were a member of our own families, "for some", says Dr. Stockhammer, "losing Scotty will be like losing a beloved pet or loved one."
"Generally, children under age 2 do not really have the capacity to understand loss beyond the idea that 'we can't see Scotty anymore.' Once children are 3 and 4 years old, it becomes important to explain death in words that they can understand. Telling a child that a loved one or beloved pet died is important. Words like "went to sleep" are confusing and scary for small children." Dr. Stockhammer adds that when children ask where Scotty went, parents can answer this question in words that are consistent with their own family's personal or cultural beliefs. It's also okay to tell your child, "I don't know."
One detail of death that is often difficult for kids to understand is its finality, but being honest about Scotty not coming back is key. Perhaps parents will consider explaining Scotty's death this way: "He was very sick, so sick that his body stopped working." Dr. Stockhammer continues, "this distinguishes from the everyday sick that kids know they get, like having a cold."
"One of the aspects of Scotty's death that is particularly upsetting is that he was a juvenile, which can be one of the scarier aspects of death for both children and parents." She adds, "Kids need to be reassured that it is very unusual for young animals (and people) to die."
Dr. Stockhammer encourages young friends of Scotty to talk about him, look at pictures of him, and even draw pictures or write notes to share with Scotty's mom at the Zoo. Now that the Zoo has released information on memorializing Scotty, we're all invited to share our special memories, or drawings and pictures on the Zoo's Facebook page, or they can be mailed to the Zoo to be kept in a scrapbook. The public is also invited to leave remembrances in a special place reserved for Scotty near the door of the Zoo's Administrative Offices. Donations can made to the Zoo in memory of Scotty, which will benefit elephant conservation. The Zoo says, "As a wonderful Zoo ambassador, as well as an ambassador for his relatives in the remnant wild, Scotty provided an opportunity for visitors to make emotional connections and change behaviors that we hope will positively impact elephant conservation."
They will be difficult conversations, discussing Scotty with our kids, and we can expect our next Zoo visits to be a little glum. As your family remembers Scotty and says goodbye, be sure that you listen to your child, and do what feels important to your child to grieve and say goodbye.
"Understanding death and dying as a part of life is important for all of us, as frightening and sad as it can be to experience it." Dr. Stockhammer adds personally, "Scotty was important to our family and we are so very saddened by his untimely death. Our condolences go out to the entire Zoo family."
Dr. Tanya Stockhammer and Dr. Felicia Smith opened StrongMinds in 2009. Both are former assistant professors in the Department of Psychiatry, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at U of L. In addition to working with children and teens directly, they also work with parents to best help the children. StrongMinds can be reached at (502) 614-7600.
Photo: Rachel Hurd Anger