A pet is often the first experience children have of love,
and the loss of a pet is often times their first experience of grief.
It was New Year’s Eve, and 2012 was turning in to 2013. We were having a great night, too. A party at our house with friends, potluck goodies, and my daughter making fried cookie dough (yep, just like the NC State Fair). If you recall, the weather was rather mild that evening so we had folks in the back yard hanging out around our newly-constructed pergola and sitting on benches we just built for the fire pit.
I was in full mode as host and chief rib-cooking mode, so I was a bit irritated when MD kept asking me if I had seen our cat Pepe recently. The last thing I had time for was going around the house and yard looking for him. We had about 30-40 people in the house, so the cat had obviously decided to got find a place to hide.
Now that we’ve introduced the cat to the story, I should pause the story and give a bit of intro for this little guy named Pepe. Pepe came in to house the previous Christmas. He was a kitten born in the family of dear friends down the street – a black and white tuxedo kitten. Precocious and precious from Day One. Took over the leadership of the house from our Australian Shepherds immediately, even to the point of being the pet that went outside every day to walk my kids home from the bus stop.
So yeah – when my daughter started to bug me with question about the whereabouts of Pepe that night, I didn’t really think much about it. He went outside in the woods by our house almost every day, especially when he wanted some “those humans need to leave me alone time”. That lack of care changed instantly, though, when she got a call from a friend down the street. He called because he had seen a cat laying in the road when driving near our house.
The evening’s party suddenly became something quite different. Our friends helped us carry this wonderful part of our family back home. Our friends, as much as they could, consoled my kids with hugs and tears. As I write this even now, I’m moved to tears by the memory of lifting Pepe up and placing him in the box he used to sit in while watching Shannon grade papers every evening.
In that moment as a parent, I remember being pulled in different ways. I remember thinking that I should take the role of the calm, stoic Dad who would handle all the difficult details of what needed to happen next. I remember also being called to being the parent who wanted to hold my kids and tell them that everything is going to be okay. And then, out of nowhere, I also remember wanting to be a human being who just lost a friend of my own. Yet over all of those mix of emotions, I remember just wanting to do something – anything – to heal the tears of my children.
For many families like ours, the death of a pet is the first experience of significant loss that many children (and families as a whole) have. Much as they give us so many gifts while they are with us, learning to live with grief is holy moment for a child. Of course parents want to “just make it better”. Best I can remember, I was looking for a replacement kitten the very next day thinking that would put a bandaid on my family’s open wound.
Inasmuch as the love we have for our companions is one of the truest realities we have in this beautiful world, the pain of grief and loss is also something that we and our children will experience over and over again in our time. Losing a pet is a time that we, as parents, can help our children (and ourselves) learn to deal with grief in healthy ways. Learn that it’s okay to cry together. Learn that it’s okay to be angry about it. Learn that it’s okay to remember, to share stories, and yes, to move on. Learn that grief has no timetable, and learn that it better to be together than it is to be apart.
In that, loss of a cherished family pet can become their last gift to us.