Last weekend, we went camping with friends, and then came home to find our much loved 19 year old cat dead. I won’t sugar coat it. It was truly awful. As I was unpacking our camping bags, it occurred to me that our cat hadn’t come to visit yet. Normally she comes to investigate all the strange smells that we have accumulated over a weekend. As I stood up to go find her, I knew. She wasn’t on her bed, so I kept looking. Under the bed, not there. In the closet? Nope. Her favorite room is the warmest one in the southwest corner of the house, which happens to be our youngest daughter’s bedroom. As the kids raced around and got in the tub, they thankfully had not entered this bedroom and they didn’t see what I finally found: our poor lovely little kitty, lying peacefully on her side.
Nineteen years is a long time, longer than I have known my husband in fact. I adopted this sweet cat after she was abandoned mid winter by some reckless college students. She was a great sidekick, accompanying me on cross country trips, sleeping in my lap as I drove between New Jersey and Colorado. She forgave me when I left her in Salem, MA with my cousin while I studied abroad for almost a year. She endured a gigantic new dog, two new cats, two new babies, and countless new residences in her 19 years. And yet she still loved me and would crawl onto my chest every night and purr incessantly. And I loved her back. When I found out two years ago that she was in kidney failure, it didn’t feel that off the wall when I agreed to start giving her IV treatments a few times a week. I know it sounds crazy, but what started out as a short term suggestion by our vet, turned into a 2 year adventure with trying to force fluids through her body. She tolerated the treatments and they gave her two more years.
But as I stood there freaking out, I wasn’t thinking about my time with my cat. I was thinking of the kids. How to tell the kids? I yelled for my husband, closed the door, and distracted the kids. He bravely got a box and some gloves and took her into the garage while the kids took baths and danced around, oblivious to what was happening. I quickly realized that we’d have to handle this with the kids differently than we did three years ago.
Three springs ago, at almost this exact time, we had to put our awesome lab/shepard mix to sleep. This dog was every bit a human and part of the family, and we knew it was going to be heartbreakingly impossible to explain to our then 7 and 4 year old daughters about putting animals to sleep. Too confusing and heartwrenching, we thought. In an effort to protect and cushion the blow, I took the kids away for the day, while my husband waited for the vet to come and put him to sleep. It’s something he still can hardly talk about – this was our first dog, after all. When the kids and I came home, they were understandably devastated and had a really difficult time coping with the fact that he had just disappeared. In hindsight, maybe we underestimated their ability to understand and their need to see and say goodbye to their dog. To this day, they still talk incessantly about our dog and how much they miss him. It’s a sore topic that hasn’t healed with time.
So in the moments after I found our kitty, I knew this time would have to be handled differently. First, we had a dead cat to deal with. Second, it didn’t go well last time and perhaps the way we handled our dog passing away wasn’t the right way for our kids. After some panicked planning in my head, I sat them down and told them the kitty had died while we were camping. We all cried together, and then began planning a late afternoon funeral in the backyard. My mother in law ran to the store to get flowers and the girls cried and made cards, pouring their hearts out to our cat telling her what a good cat she was. One thing that really surprised me was that they really wanted to see her body. I wasn’t crazy about the idea, but I agreed, figuring that maybe this was one time when I needed to think less and follow their lead more. I was imagining the worst and then when they peered down on her in her little box, what happened surprised me. They said things like, “She’s so pretty.” And, “Why is her mouth open?” Their tears stopped as they studied our cat, and I realized that this is what they needed. Seeing her helped them to acknowledge the reality of the situation.
Three days later, the kids are still talking about our cat, but their conversations are different than they were after our dog died. They seem to remember our cat more happily, and there doesn’t seem to be so much sadness. I can only conclude that after going through this twice and handling it in two very different ways, that the second time was better. The kids got to see their kitty, and they had a chance to say goodbye to her. They got to bury her with her favorite rainbow ball and throw flowers on her grave. There was closure. In our efforts to protect them the first time when our dog died, I think we actually made it harder for them. They never got a chance to say good bye.
I’m not sure what the right answers are, and in fact, there probably are no definitively good ways to handle the death of pets with kids. Each family is different, and each child different. I can only hope that with time, they will be able to remember these precious furries with happiness and not with sadness. Last night at bedtime, our youngest said, “I bet Grandma Esther (my husband’s grandmother) is up there feeding bacon to Mason & Hailey (dog & cat).” That sounds like a happy memory to me.
SJPmama is the schemer, founder, and the editor at San Juan Parent. She created San Juan Parent because she wanted to find fun activities for families that would tire her kids out and make them go to bed at a decent hour. She has been banging away on computers for longer than she can remember and freelances at various tech jobs. She considers herself extremely lucky to have such awesome friends and family who are willing to let SJP feature their stories on the interwebs.
Photo Credits volobuev.me
SJPmama is the schemer, founder, and the editor at San Juan Parent. She created San Juan Parent because she wanted to find fun activities for families in the San Juan Mountain Region that would tire her kids out and make them go to bed at a decent hour. She has been banging away on computers for longer than she can remember and freelances at various tech jobs. She considers herself extremely lucky to have such awesome friends and family who are willing to let SJP feature their stories on the interwebs.