By Contributor Jen Shragge
When my husband and I got married, we knew that a family would be in our future. We decided to start off with the four-legged variety and into our lives walked the most loving, gentle, amazing puppy that we named Reggie Jackson. We had Reggie for two years when our first two-legged variety child came along and to say he wasn’t impressed would be a huge understatement. He went from being the centre of the universe to being, well, the dog. Reggie really didn’t know quite what to make of our son Darcy and steered clear of him whenever possible.
Fast forward about a year and that annoying, crying baby started dropping food and he and Reggie started to bond (sort of). Eventually, Reggie came to appreciate the mess and fun the kid had to offer and they had a somewhat loving relationship. My son loved him to death and Reggie continued to tolerate Darcy.
Early last spring, we discovered our first son had a rare, aggressive and incurable cancer and he was given four months, maybe less, to live. We decided to explain to our five-year-old that Reggie was very sick and that he was probably not going to live for very long. Sadly, Darcy was already all too familiar with this horrible disease after the loss of my aunt the previous spring.
In my five-year-old’s eyes, the news seemed to make some sense, yet we got the distinct impression he didn’t fully grasp what was happening. Towards the end, we tried to get them to spend time cuddling and we took lots of photos. We kept reinforcing the idea that Reggie wasn’t going to live much longer and we kept reiterating that he was very, very sick.
When our vet advised us that it was time, we decided to have him put down peacefully at home. We sent our son to his grandma’s for a sleepover and took a lot of photos in the morning before he left. He didn’t know it was his last day with Reggie. We didn’t feel that he was old enough to understand the concept of euthanasia and did not want him to fear veterinarians or even doctors, so we just acted like it was another day.
The next day when he came home we explained that Reggie got very sick and we took him to the vet, but that the vet was unable to do anything else to help him and he died at the vet’s office. He was shocked and said he was sad that he didn’t get to say goodbye, which was heartbreaking, but we feel that we did the right thing.
We explained that Reggie was now in doggie heaven, running and playing and eating cookies. Even though we are atheists, we felt like in this scenario, it was important that our son felt at peace and thought of Reggie being in a better place.
We read and still read books about the loss of a pet. There are many good ones out there such as The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Erik Blegvad. We also talk about Reggie whenever our son wants to and discuss when we might get another dog, which seems to really help our son. We are a dog family and even at five, Darcy seems to fully embrace this innate aspect of our lives.
We are going to bury Reggie’s ashes and plant a rosebush in the yard. We’ll tell our son that it’s Reggie plant and that the box we bury holds his spirit.
If he starts asking questions when he is older, we will be forthright and honest. We’ll explain that we took creative liberties when he was younger because we did not want to upset him further, and that we knew one day he would be old enough to get the full story.
Losing a pet is a horrible experience, but losing a pet and having to explain the process to a young child compounds the difficulty. Keeping things age appropriate, simple and brief seem to work well. Honouring your child’s sadness is important and being willing to talk about your departed loved one is also key.
Do you have a great coping skill or mechanism for dealing with loss in young children? What are your top picks for age appropriate stories for younger children that address pet loss?
Jen Shragge lives just south of Vancouver, BC with her Kid and Hubby with a new one on the way. When she’s not trying to make the world greener she is trying to get her family to eat more greens. She writes about her attempts and includes her recipes at cookingforthecarnivore.