When a Pet Dies, How Can You Help Your Kids Say Goodbye?
Here’s the one security question I still can’t choose: “What was the name of your first pet?”
I was 13 that October, right around the time when the weather turns in Tennessee so that I needed a jacket before I left for school that morning. I ran back in to grab the old Patagonia off the hook when I heard the summons from my mother to check Amber’s food bowl before I left.
Amber, our golden retriever, the dog we drove over an hour to pick out of a brand new litter on a small farm outside of town, and who had been my sidekick for seven years. That dog was mine. I named her in the back of the minivan before we’d left the gravel drive of the farm, picking at random, because that’s how you name a dog when you’re six.
I was in a hurry when I checked her food, worrying about missing my ride and the Latin test I had later that day. But I sought her out, in her favorite lawn chair where she sat like a person with legs tucked under her, and I kissed the soft fur right between her eyes. And then I ran out the door.
And then Amber was gone. My parents took her to be “put down” while I was at school. I hadn’t known. Her bowl was gone when I came home.
They say “out of sight, out of mind,” but it’s not true. Out of sight is in the mind, locked and sealed with nowhere to go. Without a proper goodbye, I was always rounding corners, expecting Amber to be there. I was crying over hair shed on the couch and absently grabbing for a leash that wasn’t there to take her for a walk.
She’d had cancer. I knew she didn’t have long. It was the right thing to do. But I never got my moment. I never got to look into her eyes and tell her that I loved her. In my mind, I’m still calling her in from the yard.
I won’t do that with my kids. As hard as it may be, I want them to have a proper goodbye when the time comes. I owe it to them and to their animals – their companions and sidekicks. Here are five ways I’m going to help them say farewell:
Our family dog is 12. She’s doing well, but I’ve noticed the gray in her muzzle and how long it takes her to stand up, like me unfolding myself from the car after a road trip. When the times comes that she can no longer maneuver herself down the back steps to the yard, when she is in too much pain to enjoy her life, we will sit the kids down and talk to them about how she is unable to do what she once did. How she is tired and ready to rest. We will give them time to love on her and whisper the secrets in her twitching ear that they still have left to share.
Tell the truth
I’m not going to say she “went to sleep” or “went to the farm.” That doesn’t help the grieving process, even though the words “she has died” makes my stomach plummet three feet to the floor. They have to understand what happened to her, to wrap their little minds around the idea that things that have a beginning also an end. And then we will watch “All Dogs Go to Heaven”, because I’m going to need it.
Plan a memorial
Letting children decide how to honor their pet is key. I kept Amber’s collar and tags in my hope chest along with handmade quilts and my favorite Indigo Girls album. We buried her in our backyard under the strawberry plants she always got to before we did. I want my kids to be able to choose how to honor our dog. Poems, speeches, favorite foods and walks, best memories and pictures are up for their choosing. It’s their goodbye, and they will be able to say it as they wish.
Feel the grief
Saying goodbye to my grandfather at age 10 was easier than saying goodbye to my childhood dog. I remember feeling sad at his funeral, staring at a face that did not look real, but must be because everybody said so. Perhaps it was because he lived eight states away and visits were annual. Perhaps it’s because he was already old when I met him. I did not know him in his puppy stage.
But with Amber, the grief laid me flat. Denial and anger were the heavy hitters. How could she be gone? I just fed her this morning? How could you take her without telling me? Because of this, I will honor every stage of my children’s grief. As their mother, I will ride out every phase and weather the storm with them as best I can.
If acceptance is the last stage in the grieving process, getting a new pet is the reset button. But we’re not going to hurry. I don’t want a replacement pet. I want a pet who will not have to settle for second-best to a memory. I want my kids to understand that this new pet, whenever and whatever they choose, will not be a “do-over,” because no one can fill the place of the one that went before.
Once they have grieved enough to heal, then we will visit the farm or the shelter or the adoption center and let our hearts melt all over again at the new fuzzy faces.
Our pets love us with their whole hearts. It’s in their genetic make-up to take us as we are. We owe them big for all they put up with in us. Because of that, it’s important to help our kids pay homage to them as best we can when their time comes to say goodbye.
I’m still going to need a lot of Kleenex and wine at the end of the day.