Last November we were so excited to include in our family a kitten, Frosty. She was
immediately loved, and then a few months later died unexpectedly. In her last moments as well as the days that followed, I was fortunate to be able to incorporate my training and experience as a chaplain with the role of being Mom.
Here are a few points that may be helpful if you are faced with a similar situation.
1) Realize that every family and situation is unique and dynamic. Each member of the family enters into the situation with a different experience and understanding of death, some of which may not be consciously known. Understand that just because someone isn’t experiencing the grief as you would predict doesn’t mean that they aren’t experiencing it. And also understand, that it is okay not to be sad – not everyone has deep connections with animals. Most importantly, however each person experiences the death and aftermath is valid for them.
Our story: Our children are very aware of death, having visited “old” people, some in hospice, and knowing that I have gone to and/or officiated many funerals. Last year they both came with us for the internment of my great-aunt. It was a very casual and family affair so they were up close and personal with the acts of digging the grave, putting in the ashes and covering them up. (She was buried with a beloved cat.) While they have not experienced the death of grandparents or other close relatives, I talk to them often about their great-grandparents who have died. Both my husband and I have gone through multiple pet and human deaths, some tragic and unexpected, others predictable.
Builder/Son: Frosty was officially his first pet. While he was with us at the ER Vet when she died, he did not want to be in the same room. He did say goodbye to her. He processes life through conversation and thinking on his own. I spoke with him about all the steps that were happening and would happen. A few of his comments: “I didn’t know someone so young could die.”; “Now I can understand how a person and a cat could fit into a small box.”; “When I die I will be able to see Frosty again.”; “Frosty Jr. (a concrete statue cat we purchased in memory) is rock so she can’t ever get hurt or die.”; and frequently: “I miss Frosty.”.
Princess/Daughter: She was crying a lot at the vet, but afterwards was not as impacted. She expressed missing Frosty, but was instead very supportive of Builder’s ideas and efforts to process the death.
Husband: He expressed that his grief was in that the children had to experience it. He was in particular very supportive of managing the children as I took care of the details with the Vet.
Me: Surprisingly, I found myself feeling the loss of Frosty’s presence in the house. I have spent the most time with her…or she with me…and had grown used to having her around. I do have grief that such a wonderful being experienced so little of life and our children will miss out on years with her, but also fortunate that we had the experience and that she did not spend her life without a family. I also went into “chaplain” and “teaching” mode with the children, allowing me to focus on them.
2) Take concrete steps to acknowledge and address the grief that each person in the family is or is not experiencing. There are many ways that you can honor the pet, some of which I will include below. Most importantly, draw from your own family traditions and ways of being. Do you pray regularly? Include the pet in the prayers. Is the child/you heavily involved in a church or other community? Share the news with them. Are you artistic? Make something to honor the pet or the experience. Drawing pictures is an amazing way for young children to express their feelings. For older children, writing a letter may work best. The death of a pet is an event that has a spiritual and emotional impact on the life of the individuals affected – acknowledge it appropriately.
At time of Death: My husband woke-up to find Frosty in major distress. He woke me up, we decided on a plan (him: stay with kids and call in late to work, me take her to the the emergency vet). I told our son before leaving that she was sick, but he was only half awake. Once I was told that she had only a short-time left to live due to a neurological issue, I called my husband and he brought the kids to say goodbye. I held her until the end, with our daughter often with me, and our son – unable to be right there – just outside in the waiting room. I wanted to make sure that everyone had a chance to say goodbye, as we were fortunate to be able to do that, but also follow their instincts on what worked best for each of them during the waiting. The vet techs were amazing, doing all they could. The vet checked multiple times with me, if I really wanted to hold her when she died – and have the kids around. We knew what was right for us, so I insisted without any doubt.
Talking: We have talked with our children about all aspects of the situation using concrete concepts that they can understand. We were honest with what happened, talked about where we think Frosty is now, what happened to her body (cremation) and the burial, and talked about their grief and ours. Anytime one of the children mention something about it, I immediately respond with acknowledging their ideas and/or feelings, or talking with them about their question or observation.
Physical Reminders: The hardest part was leaving Frosty at the vet and driving away, knowing she wouldn’t be with us again. My husband went to work and the kid’s and I did two things: went to a local garden store and bought a cat statue, and went to the craft store to get supplies to make garden stones. By doing something we regained the feeling of control over the situation and allowed our children to begin understanding the new reality. We also accepted the vet’s offer to make paw prints in clay, and we got one for each child. As we had her for only a few months, these prints and some pictures were all we really had of her. Eventually we buried Frosty, and going through the ritual as a family was a final act of caring for her. They kids can also take comfort in the idea that she is playing with our other cats who have died, as they are buried together. A nice touch was that a friend sent a condolence card – a simple and meaningful gesture.
3) The decision to “replace” the pet needs to be undertaken with serious thought. Adopting or not adopting another pet depends on many factors, and only you and your family can make this determination. It is normal for disagreement, especially in the wake of grief. The best advice I have heard is to delay adding a new pet to the family until the urgency of the grief has passed.
Our Story: Honestly, I did not handle this well. Both my husband and I had wonderful experiences with our childhood pets (both were cats). I wanted our children to have a similar experience – a normal parental feeling – and the shock of losing the “perfect pet” hit me really hard. I had brought this emotional attachment into our children’s lives, and it was suddenly taken away. As is typical with my personality, I went into fix-it mode and started looking for another cat. My searches for a new cat was very difficult, as the cost of adoption in our area is prohibitively high ($175, even $250, and up!!!) normally, but especially in the wake of the expensive vet bills. But in the end, this is how Max and Fezzi came into our lives. I had intended to only adopt one cat…but these two brothers were the last of a litter, and the foster mother was very convincing (plus they were sponsored and from outside our metro area, so we could afford them). Nine months later I can now say that it has turned out to be a good situation, but it has been an adjustment. While they are both sweet and unique, they are far from the “perfect cat” Frosty was. While the kids and my husband have been able to accept them as they are, it has been a bit harder for me…as I have felt guilty about moving too fast to adopt and that it has taken a lot more patience and work for them to be comfortable with us. However, they are now very comfortable, with Max (our son’s cat) letting our son pick him up and with Fezzi (our daughter’s) following me around like a dog (Fezzi has attachment issues). Both cats love to play, and the kids often pull strings around for them to chase. It has worked out, but I will always feel a bit guilty of rushing to replace Frosty.
Dealing with children and the loss of a pet is never easy, as it forces us to not only help them with the process of grief, but also deal with our own issues (or lack of them) around grief in general. Death is a real part of life, and no matter what our age, it is unavoidable. But, we do have the choice of how we go about dealing with our grief.
Each situation is unique, so trust yourself and the other members of your family to find your way through it.