When I was 11, I wanted to be a veterinarian. Playing with animals all day seemed like a fun gig. Around this time, Billy Joel released the pop-rap song "We Didn't Start The Fire". In it, Mr Joel barks through a litany of horrible events that occurred in the 20th Century, at one point rhyming "foreign debts" and "Bernie Goetz" with "homeless vets". When I heard that, I thought, Oh no! I don't want to be a homeless veterinarian!
Illustration by Chelsea Beck/Lifehacker/GMG
Thank god I was a dummy, because it saved me from a lifetime of euthanising animals. Even though there's an argument against pets, I've owned my fair share and cried over their deaths, both as a child and as a parent. I've never figured out how to make it hurt any less, but I have learned what to expect.
Agree On the Limits of Treatment
When you bring a puppy home from the shelter, you're taking on the responsibility for his health. Fido gives you love. You give him food, exercise and medical care.
The last item becomes exponentially more invasive and expensive as Fido gets older. Chronic conditions can be managed for years, as long as you have the commitment and the cash, as The Onion lampooned.
When your pet's last days approach, be open with your partner and your vet about setting limits. Talk about those limits in age-appropriate ways with your kids. Help them understand how you're working to keep Fido alive without sacrificing his quality of life to prolong the inevitable. Kids realise that it's humane to put animals out of their misery, but you don't want them to feel like you elected to murder Fido because he became too burdensome.
Don't Wait Too Long
After my first few months of university, I returned home for the holidays. What greeted me was the family dog, Peanut, laying under the dining room table, breathing fast and shallow. I went into the kitchen and called my dad to ask if he knew the dog was dying. He did. There was a plan for an executioner's trip to the vet. I hung up the phone and went back into the dining room to find that Peanut had quit before we could fire him. Then I had to tell my stepsister, who I hadn't seen in 10 weeks, that the dog she grew up with, who she loved dearly, was dead. Later, my brother and I dug a grave in the backyard. My dad returned home in time to preside over the rainy funeral.
Twenty years later, I was the dad. Our cat Rex was dying. It felt too soon, even though he was 16. I didn't want him to die, but he did a lot of things I didn't want him to. One morning, I wrapped him in a towel and drove him to the vet and placed him on a table and stroked his fur while they stuck a needle in him. I hated every moment, but someone had to end his pain. And someone had to spare my children from finding their cat, limp on the dining room floor.
Don't Get a Replacement Right Away
For many children, the death of a pet is the worst day of their lives. It's that much harder if the death is sudden or accidental. Realising that life can be unfairly cut short is painful. Letting kids feel pain is one of the hardest things to do as a parent. You want to sweep in with kisses and a wiggly puppy, but this sort of pain - grief as an expression of love - mustn't be redirected.
Answer any questions your kids have about why Fido died. Encourage them to talk about the feelings of fear and anger they might have. Offer comfort by crying with them.
Well-meaning friends and relatives will ask when you're getting a new cat to replace the one you loved for half your life. Sarah McLachlan will guilt you into saving a suffering, innocent animal. Ignore them. If you need furry critters in your life, pet sit for a neighbour or volunteer at an animal shelter. Everyone in the family should be ready for a new pet before it scampers into the living room. Re-upping too soon is unfair to the slow mourners and to Fido II, who will be incapable of living up to his predecessor's memory.
Write 10 Good Things
I'm borrowing this suggestion from the lovely book, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney.
Organise some kind of ritual - a burial or memorial service - to provide closure. Encourage each member of the family to write their own list of 10 good things about the dearly departed. Compare the contents. The commonalities will bind you together. Unique items will give you insight into the reasons your kids loved their dog.
I'll tell you 10 good things about my cat Rex.
He played fetch. He loved everyone he met, even the children who invaded his house. He ran away once, but stayed in the neighbourhood so that we could find him again. His meow was a chirp of vocal fry. He was wild about rotisserie chicken. When he was outside, he would sniff with his whole body, every bit of him tensed, drinking in the air. If you held your hand at knee height, he would stand up on his back legs and curve his head under your palm, like a dolphin jumping. He loved naptime snuggles on the couch. He sang "I'm a Little Teapot" with me, offering a strangled "meow" for the final "out".
He chose us. One day, I went to the back door to grab the paper. Instead I found a cat. He let himself into the apartment and into our lives. Out of all the people in the neighbourhood, he chose us. How could I not love him?