Help! I Lied and Told Our Son the Dog Died. Now He Wants To Exhume the Body.

Advice on manners and morals.
Aug. 20 2012 1:00 PM

Not-So Buried Secret

In a live chat, Prudie advises a mother who gave the family dog away but told her son it died.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. Emily is currently on vacation, but unpublished letters from a previous chat are below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I'm looking forward to your questions.

Q. Dead-Dog Dilemma: When my oldest son was 8, we decided to get a dog. I've raised dogs before so I had a fairly good idea of what I was getting myself into, until I realized our new dog was the devil's spawn in furry disguise. I won't get into all the trouble he caused. We made a difficult decision to send him back to his previous owner, but my son was adamantly against it. He went on a hunger strike and refused to speak to anyone, including at school. (He inherits the drama-queen gene from both his parents.) So one day we sent him to his grandparents under the guise of a happy weekend outing, and secretly took the dog back. After our son came home we lied and said the dog died. To make it believable we pretended to have buried the dog in the backyard. My son is now 13 and he still goes to the "grave" to mark every anniversary of the "death," which in itself is impressive because he doesn't even remember his own birthday. Anyway, the problem is, we are now moving. My son has been increasingly worried about leaving Scooter behind and has been asking us to exhume his body to rebury him in our new house. He is insisting that he be there to witness the "ceremony" of exhuming and reburying as he feels he never got a proper chance to say goodbye at the original "funeral." Knowing our son, he would be devastated and perhaps scarred for life if we admit the truth. I know it was wrong to lie but we don't want our son to lose trust in us forever because of what happened in the past. What should we do?

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A: Apparently you haven't heard that the lie parents tell children when they get rid of a pet they can't stand but the kids love is that Scooter is now "living on a farm out in the country." I understand that melodrama runs strong through your family, but part of the job of parenting is helping your child deal with painful emotions and rein in their drama-queen tendencies. I assume if you had told your son that you knew he adored Scooter but unfortunately Scooter was just not the right pet for your family, eventually your son would have eaten and spoken again. You should have explained the kindest thing to do is what you did: return Scooter to his previous owners. You don't mention getting another dog, which is unfortunate because that would have given your son the experience of dog ownership and helped loosen the grip of Scooter's memory. If you continue in your deception, presumably your son takes a shovel and starts his fruitless search for Scooter. Then presumably you tell some lie about dog decomposition. It's time to fess up. Start with an apology. Say you realize you did something wrong five years ago out of good intentions gone awry. Tell him what actually happened. The truth has some comfort in it because Scooter lived and presumably found another home. Tell your son you know he'll be angry and justifiably so, and that you two have learned a difficult lesson about telling the truth, even if it's hard. Say you hope he'll learn about forgiving people who make mistakes and own up.

Dear Prudence: Homophobic Ex-Husband

Q. I Am the Other Woman: A couple of months ago I had a brief romance with a man who, as I later discovered, was married. I immediately broke it off. Although I was upset and hurt, I decided to forget about it and move on. But his wife found some of our text messages—nothing racy, just a little bit of flirting, asking each other how their day was, etc. This apparently (and understandably) aroused her suspicion and she started calling me. I never answer calls except for known numbers, so I didn't pick up at first. She must have thought I was avoiding her on purpose. She's left me a few messages (one of them with a crying baby in the background—I'm guessing their child) tearfully asking me to call her back because she wanted to know what was going on. I'm also receiving text messages. I really don't know what to say to her. This man and I never slept together but we went on a lot of dates and did stuff couples do when they first start going out. If it were me, I'd want to know if my husband was starting an illicit romance. But I also don't want to destroy a marriage or hurt this woman. Should I tell her honestly that we dated briefly? Ignore her? Lie and say I went after him but nothing happened? What?

A: How horribly distressing to find evidence that while you're home nursing the baby, your husband is out drinking with another women. You have no obligation to respond to her. It sounds as if she's got plenty to nail her husband, who is probably lying to her about everything. You can continue to ignore her, but if you feel that if the situation were reversed you'd want to be told, then the next time she calls, answer. Tell her the truth, that he presented himself as a single, you dated but did not have sex, but when you found out he had a wife, you dumped him. Then leave it at that—you don't want to get into further weepy conversations while she tries to extract all the details.

Q: Mom With Alzheimer's: My mother died in March of this year at age 57 from early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Throughout this ordeal our dad was a brick: He cared for her at home as long as possible, and visited her frequently in her Assisted Living place and eventual nursing home, even when it was clear she had no idea who he was. He encouraged us to do the same, which we did. So we were genuinely happy when he started dating again not long after Mom died. Although a bit concerned by the age difference (he's 63, she's 29), she seems like a nice person. However, we have since learned that 1) they already have two children together with another on the way; 2) he divorced our mother some time ago and married No. 2; and 3) he has rewritten his will to leave everything to her because "you four are all well-established [not true] and she will likely be left a widow with young children." He is correct that, given his age and health, purchasing life insurance would be prohibitive. Needless to say, this is a lot to get our heads around. How do you even divorce an Alzheimer's patient? While he clearly can leave his property to whomever he chooses, we don't think our Mom would want the four of us to be disinherited. How do we deal with our new half siblings? We are ages 35, 34, 31, and 28, so three of us are older than our new stepmother. Your help in getting this all sorted out would be greatly appreciated.

A: You've been through the terrible ordeal of seeing your mother robbed of herself at a tragically young age. Now you have to absorb that your brick of a father was something of a cad. I am sympathetic to people who honor their commitment to a spouse with dementia—who is gone in every way except physically—while also recognizing their own needs to feel vital and among the living. But your father has taken that need to extremes. Starting a new family in his 60s with a woman in her 20s is a shocking development and I understand all of you are reeling. At the least, you like your new stepmother—she's also likely to understand any cultural references you make a lot better than your father does. You can figure out your relationship with your new siblings as you go along. It could be that all of you are so far into your own adult lives and obligations that you don't have time for more than cursory contact with them. Maybe, if any of you have kids, you will welcome this new set of playmates. As for the inheritance, I can understand this is a bitter blow, but it's your father's money to distribute, as you acknowledge. Many people end up with two ailing parents who are financial drains, so consider yourself lucky all of you haven't had to pool your own resources to care for your parents. And do have some sympathy for this brood of children who are going to grow up worrying about how long they'll have a father.

Q. Re: Dead-Dog Dilemma: Keep that secret buried in the yard with the fake dog body! The son sounds like he has some development issues. Tell him it's illegal to dig up a grave, and that the dog was buried in that location because it was his favorite spot in the yard and that it only seems right to keep him there. Then get another dog or a fish for the son. This is ridiculous. Don't come forward with the truth to a 13-year-old, wait until he's in his 30s with hopefully more maturity.

A: This is the consensus response, keep up the fake story. I'm willing to concede a farewell ceremony for Scooter—sans exhumation—may be the right way to go. The parents are in the best position to know if their son is now mature enough to handle hearing what really happened to Scooter and that his parents told a rather cruel fib.

Q. Half vs. Whole Siblings: My ex-husband and his wife are expecting a new baby this winter. My kids are excited but nervous about this new sibling. My daughter is especially wary about being replaced as her dad's "baby." My mom told my kids, within my earshot, that half siblings were different than full siblings, and this made them feel better. I guess my daughter told her stepmother the baby would only be her half sibling, and this really upset my ex's wife. She and my ex had a long talk about how this baby will be her brother or her sister no matter what. Now my kids are confused and even more agitated. My ex wants me to talk to my mom about the "half sibling jibe" but frankly I don't think my mom did anything wrong. Do I need to do anything, here?

A: If you and your husband were still married and you were expecting another child, your daughter would be worried about being replaced as the baby. Since you have more than one child you went through this yourself. I assume you didn't reassure the oldest that the new baby wouldn't really count. Your mother was out of line and you should have corrected her privately, and then told your kids you disagree with what grandma said. Yes, she was right that their new sibling will have a different mother and won't live with you all the time. But you disagree with their grandma about feeling differently about this child than they do about each other. Tell them they are going to have a new brother or sister who will grow up thinking they are the greatest. Brava for your husband's new wife for wanting his existing children to be fully part of this expanding family. My husband grew up with two older half siblings and though he came to understand they had a different father than he and his younger brother, the entire family was treated as a unit and he makes no emotional distinction between his "half" and "full" siblings. If people are lucky, that's the way it should turn out.

Q. The Girl at the Office: A new girl just started at our office and I think I'm in love with her. We can talk to each other for hours and seem to have everything in common from music tastes, favorite childhood TV shows, political affiliations, and hobbies. She's funny, intelligent, beautiful, and she hit me like a train. One day I was bummed over being dumped by my ex, and the next day she came waltzing into the office and we became fast friends. The problem is she has a man already. I can't get her out of my head—I force myself to stop thinking about her at least a hundred times a day. I think it's possible that she might have some similar type of feeling about me, but she also seems very committed to her boyfriend. I'm wondering if I should pursue this girl? Should I make my feelings clear to her? There's no issue with us being at the same office—our field is a bit liberal with things like this. I truly think I'm in love with her.

A: I think the operative sentence here is the one about being dumped by your ex, and the "next day" the perfect girl just waltzes in your office. Ask yourself if you were still with your ex whether this new co-worker would be messing with your mind. She's obviously enjoying your company, and is obviously making it clear that she has a boyfriend and is committed to him. She might be emphasizing that because she doesn't want this office flirtation to get out of control. You say this is all very recent. You're an adult so you know how infatuation works, and this one has hit you "like a train." So don't let yourself get derailed. Please don't declare your love—if you did declare something about your sudden, profound feelings the chances are she will be very uncomfortable and brush you off, and then it's going to get very awkward in the coffee room. Continue to be friendly, but instead of whiling away the work day with her ("we can talk for hours...") limit the conversation and concentrate more on your duties. If over time she starts realizing her boyfriend's not the one and you are, then let her make the first move. 

Q. Move With Ailing Parents: My husband was recently offered a promotion within the same company he currently works—but it is contingent on a move to about six hours away by car (1½ hours by plane) from his hometown, where we live. Our children are still a year away from kindergarten and there is a market for my profession in the new city. The downside of this move is my mother-in-law, who is in the final stages of an aggressive form of cancer. Obviously, my entire family is affected by this horrible and sudden illness. But my husband might not get another opportunity like this for a long time and he is considering taking it and coming back on weekends to see his mother. With his promotion, he will get more flex time and working-from-home opportunities that would make this a feasible option. My sister-in-law was irate when we brought up the potential move. (We would be relocating after the Christmas holidays.) We feel that the timing of the move, in combination with my husband's new position, will provide him with plenty of time to see his mother. My sister-in-law feels we are abandoning his mother and leaving her with the "heavy lifting." My husband and I are really torn. We want to do the best thing for our entire family, but it is really unclear what that best thing is right now. Any advice would be appreciated.

A: This is an agonizing choice, and I'm sure your mother-in-law would want to see as much of her loved ones as possible for as long as possible. But I'm hoping her wish would be that her son put himself in the best position to advance his career and provide for his family in the long run. I think he should take the job. You would not be moving until the end of the year. I know you don't want to say it, but I can: Since your mother-in-law is in the final stages of her illness, it may be that she only has a few more months to live. If she hangs on, a 1½ hour flight is easily manageable and your husband should be able to see his mother on many weekends. It's true that in that case more work will fall to your sister. But as your move approaches, all of you should discuss hospice care so that no matter how many family members are around, your mother's physical needs are being met by skilled professionals. Frankly, your choice does not require sign-off by the rest of the family, and if your sister-in-law starts badgering, your husband can tell her he told the company he needs more time to decide, he doesn't want to debate this with her, and they can all agree that for now everyone wants to concentrate on helping their mother.

Q. Do Long-Term Couples Need Condoms? After being in a monogamous relationship for six months, I suggested that my boyfriend and I stop using condoms. (Neither of us has an STD.) He replied that he wants to control his own fertility, and he's not willing to rely on me to be in charge of contraception. He always used condoms with past GFs. But I have an IUD, a highly reliable form of contraception with little possibility for user error, and I hate using condoms! I thought men did, too. So I waited another six months and brought it up again, but he hasn't changed his mind. I respect his desire to take responsibility for birth control, but after a certain point in a relationship, shouldn't he be able to trust me with it? I would never intentionally get pregnant without his consent.

A: I have a theory: Sure, your boyfriend may want to be extra careful about procreation, but he may find that the reduction in sensitivity the condom provides helps increase the time you spend not procreating. He's comfortable with them, and he's declined to stop using them on several occasions, so let this go. If you start thinking of them as a pleasure enhancer instead of reducer, you may hate them a lot less.

Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone. I've got to now tell my daughter that our late beagle, Sasha, is not romping on a farm.

Going forward, we’re spreading out the chat, publishing the transcript in a shorter, more digestible form. You will still be getting all the questions and answers (just not all at once).

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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