Perhaps you read a recent blog we posted entitled, ‘A Puppy Sounded Like a Ride on the Crazy Train to Me.’ If you didn’t get a chance to read it; I would recommend taking a few minutes to do so. It’s a pretty humorous blog about my husband being ready for two big dogs — not so much my children, though.
In any case, what I failed to mention in that blog were a couple of deciding factors for me not wanting to get puppies when my children were too young. One of which ends up being the topic of this current and not-so-humorous blog.
First of all — I wanted my children to experience puppyhood and have it be a memorable part of their childhood. After all, 'puppy' is the most fun stage of having a dog. Had we gotten a puppy (or puppies as my husband wanted) when we had two-year-old twins and a four-month-old baby, none of the children would have had the slightest memory of the experience of having a brand new puppy. That puppy milk-breath, that soft little tongue, those sweet puppy noises, the cute and clumsy playfulness, that adorable roly-poly belly, the loose doughy skin — well, if you’re a dog owner you know what I’m talking about. It’s like having a baby, only in doggie form.
And second of all — which is the purpose of my blog today — had we gotten a puppy when they were so young, my children most likely would have had to deal with the death of a dog at a much younger age. And although there is NO age at which it is easy to deal with the passing of the furriest of family members, children who are older do have a little bit easier time of processing, understanding, and coping with loss.
As it turns out, waiting to bring puppies into our family was the right decision for us. Now having said that, we did have a couple of pets when my children were younger. When Matty and Meggie were four years old, and Mikee was two, we had a goldfish named Calvin. Unfortunately, as with many goldfish living in a bowl, his life was a bit short-lived. When he passed, we discussed the proper burial for Calvin and mutually decided that a fish would probably prefer a burial at sea — so to speak — than being buried in dirt. Well of course, living land-locked in Vermont you can imagine what our most convenient water-burial option was. Now, Calvin’s demise was indeed sad, but my kiddos were more intrigued with flushing him down the toilet — wondering where he would end up — than being too severely impacted by his actual death.
A couple of years later, we started keeping chickens for the fresh eggs, and one little grey hen (named Smokey) stole our hearts and became more of a pet than an egg producing farm animal. Smokey was an unusual little bird, and she loved our family. She would get into the car with us whenever we went anywhere. Of course, we couldn’t very well take a chicken with us, so her attempts were always unsuccessful, but in her futility, she would chase the car down the driveway and half-way down the road before giving up and returning to the other chickens in defeat. Every morning we would find her knocking at the sunroom door — where the children would feed her fresh fruit for breakfast. Smokey would allow people to hold and 'chicken cuddle' with her. She honestly acted more like a dog than a chicken and Matty, Meggie, and Mikee loved her very much. And then one evening, tragically, Smokey didn't return to the barn. And we never saw her again.
That was my children’s first, shall we say, 'impactful' experience with the death of a beloved pet. And it was challenging — we all cried and felt sad for days. It was then that I finally admitted to my husband that our family was ready for a puppy. By that time, Matty and Meggie were a little over six years old, and Mikee was about to turn four.
They were all definitely at an age when they would remember the experience of having a puppy. So that met my first contingency for ‘the right age’ for a family pet. Then I did some quick math; assuming there would be no unforeseen calamity, the children would probably be well through their teen years before we had to deal with any geriatric dog illness and the loss of the dog — second contingency met!
It took us a bit to determine the right breed. My husband, in spite of our harrowing introduction to Bull Mastiffs, wanted ‘big dogs’ — aka small horses — but residual trauma kept Matty and Meggie deathly fearful of big dogs. And then one day, my husband came home and said, “I think I have found the perfect dog for us! Cairn Terriers. They are big dog personalities in little bodies.” And so began our journey with family pets, and our first little Cairn was to be named Miss Daisy Mae. Eventually, we added another named Miss Lily Lu and then, five of the sweetest little Alpine/Nubian goats you’ll ever meet Billy, Timmy, Callie, Sallie, and Nellie. Our little menagerie quite completed our family.
And fortunately, as I had predicted — we were not forced to deal with the loss of a pet until my children were well into their teenage years; however, even at that point, dealing with the loss of a pet was far from easy for them. It happened five years ago, and we never did determine why; but one of our male goats — Timmy — suddenly became very ill. Some at the time said, "He's just a goat!" But a family pet is never 'just' anything, and they were never 'just goats!' We adopted them when they were tiny little kids that had to be bottle-fed, and these little beings have been a part of our family for eleven years now. They're not just goats!
We tried everything for nearly two months to nurse Timmy back to good health but eventually decided that it would be best to let him go. For the entire two months, my husband seemingly was the most level-headed of the bunch and continually tried to encourage us to 'do the right thing' and put the goat down. And when the children and I finally did come to terms with it, and the veterinarian arrived that bleak afternoon in November — guess who was crying the hardest? Yes — my big, tough, burly husband! For the rest of us, we cried too, but there was a somewhat unsettling relief about the whole experience because we knew in our hearts that we had done everything we could and that it was best to end Timmy's suffering. Nevertheless, we were all consumed with grief.
More recently (just about five weeks ago), a second beloved goat — Billy — became ill and died within an hour of me calling Doctor Steve. This experience was by far more devastating for the entire family — because there was guilt involved. I felt guilty for not calling the veterinarian sooner when he had lost some weight — but he was acting and eating normally. Mikee, who was home at the time, felt guilty because he found Billy and wished he could have been there with him in his last moments. Meggie and Matty felt guilty for not spending more time with the goats when they came home for college breaks.
The horrible experience left me with all kinds of mixed emotions and made me realize that being a parent and consoling your children over the death of a pet, while you're dealing with grief too, is extremely difficult. The loss of a pet, no matter what that pet, is often felt as profoundly and painfully as the passing of a human family member or close friend. In many instances for young children and older children alike, the loss of your family pet may very well be a child’s first experience with death. And we mustn’t forget that the grief and sadness over the loss of a pet are emotions often accompanied by feelings of confusion, fear, and sometimes (as I found) guilt for children as well as adults. The death of a pet is tragic for any aged child; however, the younger the child, the more difficult it is for them to process and understand the feelings they are experiencing.
Next week I’ll look more closely at how children, more specifically at certain ages, grieve the loss of a pet and how, as parents (often dealing with our grief), we can help them through the process.
Oh! And by the way, we'd be ever so grateful if you'd...