How NOT to Tell Children About the Death of a Pet

When I was seven years old, my beloved orange tabby, Fred, who followed me everywhere and slept on my bed and whom I totally adored, vanished. It was a Wednesday.

I cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried, missing Fred terribly and not knowing when he was coming back. Finally on Saturday my parents told me he’d been hit by a car and killed. On Wednesday.

I think they were hoping I’d forget him or something. Now that I have kids, I understand they probably really didn’t want to have to tell me about it.

Once I learned what had happened and that he wasn’t coming back, my grief eased immediately. I mean, I was still completely sad that he was gone, but what I remember as most painful was the Wednesday through Saturday period, pure pain and sorrow, not knowing. I don’t remember feeling so lost and broken after finding out he was dead. I was mad at my parents for a little while, and it’s a story I told for years (why? I don’t know. I’m not the most socially smooth person. I probably thought it was relevant somehow).

We lived on a farm, and we lost many more cats to the road. A few dogs, too. The loss of a pet sucked horribly each time, but my brothers and I were not afraid of or unfamiliar with death. We had a small cemetery of pets under the apple tree in the backyard; it included many cats, some dogs, a few goldfish, and maybe a chick or two, also.

[Misty the horse got buried in the back field, right where she died of old age, with the help of a backhoe; she was far too big to haul up toward the house.]

I had pets in college. Some I lost to the road, since during my last year of college I lived in a little house by a busy road. The house was known as “The Flute House” and was on the Merchant-Ivory estate (as in, James Merchant and Ismail Ivory, the movie guys (A Room With a View? Howard’s End? Those guys). They lived in the main house. A motley crew of us (don’t get me started) filled in the outbuildings. Our house was closest to the road.

It was horrible. We lost so many cats. That house has a million stories, involving Thanksgiving and homemade crack and amazing fresh basil omelets and fried lettuce and heroin and fly fishing…*

And one night, in 1995, I was in the kitchen, drinking beer. Our yard backed up to a large farm field; it was a rural area. At night we listened to the coyote packs howl. Out in the darkness, I heard an odd squeaking, tiny and regular. It got closer. I yelled for one of my housemates, my best friend at the time. “Em! Come ‘ere! What is this?”

She came and stood in the open sliding door with me. The squeaking got closer and closer and a tiny kitten trotted toward us. Tiny. It trotted right past our feet and into the house and aimed for the bowls of pet food on the floor (at the time, we had two puppies and several cats).

She ate and ate and ate, all the cat food and some puppy food, until her stomach was the size of a tennis ball. She settled in with us nicely, fending off the puppies, holding her own with the cats, and eating everything in sight. She’d climb into an open pretzel bag and hang out there, licking and crunching pretzels.

I moved out, eventually, and she came with me. Her name, at that time, was Karl. It still is. Long story, but I wasn’t the one who named her.

I eventually brought Karl to Maine to live; we lived in a back shed on a farm. She brought in chipmunks as playtoys; she killed every field mouse, vole, and shrew in the vicinity and left parts of them at my doorstep. She got in a terrible fight one night with something (fisher? raccoon?) and I went out and scared off the other animal and she was terrified and bleeding (but ultimately fine).

She was 14 pounds of pure muscle with attitude.

When we moved to the city, Karl had the ability to stare down other animals. She’d escape my apartment to beat up the neighbor cats; she scared a frequently-visiting bulldog into looking anywhere but directly at her. Poor Rosie would sit there, her eyes downcast, then shifting to the side, the ceiling….making sure not to make eye contact with my alpha cat Karl.

Curled up nearby, sleeping, as she often is these days.

Karl’s much older now. You do the math. Her kidneys are failing. My vet charges me $160 for a urine test, $2/can for the food she doesn’t eat. After initial testing, we don’t see the point of going much further. We give her subcutaneous fluids three times a week or so. She doesn’t love that. She doesn’t eat much if we don’t do it, though.

She sleeps a lot these days.

She looks like she weighs about 4 pounds (it’s closer to 5 and a half, but still: skin and bones).

I don’t think it’s her time yet, but that time is getting mighty close.

So I decided to warn the kids.

They love her. Max seems indifferent much of the time, but Ben is always after the kitty. A few nights ago, fearing the end was very near, I had a talk with them about how the cat is really old and ill and not feeling well and might not be with us much longer. I’d have to take her to the vet soon. I guess I made the point clear, because Max wanted to know “how they kill kitties.” Ben, on the other hand, laughed and said, “That’s silly! Kitties can’t ride in cars!” and thought the whole idea was very funny. Max wanted to know how they made her die and why she couldn’t just die here with us.

I had to try to explain what exactly they do at the vet’s office to put her down.

I think I handled the whole thing badly, in retrospect, though at the time I thought I was doing a great thing: preparing them for the death of a pet. After all, it’s better than having them get home from preschool/daycare to find the cat gone, right?

If you think “yes,” well, I don’t know. Now they’re into the cat all the time. I was hoping the kids would go to my mom’s for a few days (Friday/Saturday) so I could work and then go hiking for my birthday, but Max is refusing to go. He says he wants to be with the kitty. I promised that the kitty would be fine and would be here when he got back, the stupidest promise ever. I cannot guarantee that. I don’t know when we’ll need to make the call.

I know in part he’s always reluctant to go to my mom’s for a sleepover without us (oh, attachment parenting theory, I don’t like you much sometimes!), but this time he’s using the cat as an excuse, and he is very solicitous of her since our macabre little talk.

“Shhhhhhh,” he said the other night at bedtime story time on the sofa. “The kitty is sleeping. We have to be really quiet. Don’t wake her up. She’s sick.”

Ben, for his part, periodically talks about how kitties can’t ride in cars unless maybe you put them in a bag, and he wants to know when I will bring the kitty to the vet.

So. Not telling your kid about a dead pet is pretty scarring; trying to prepare the child in advance is obviously not the solution, either. I almost have to put Karl to sleep now, just to get it over with, even though the vet said she might last another six months.

I don’t know if I can last that long, what with all the questions and separation anxiety Max now has for the poor cat.

* Let’s be clear. They weren’t MY drugs. I’m not gonna name any names, but my roommates, you know…Maybe this is worth another blog post.

Have you ever had to handle the death of a pet when you had small children? What did you say?

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