The Last Lesson They Teach Us

(Plus Five Ways to Help Your Child Grieve)

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Callisto was an Australian Shepherd, the color of Oklahoma red dirt. She came into our lives long before children, a realization of my childhood dream of a perfect dog. She lived with my now husband and me in three different homes and, in her early years, a changing cast of roommates. She accepted both of our babies from the moment we brought them home. She sniffed them all over and claimed them as hers with a lick. I was never alone for late-night baby rocking and nursing; that little red dog was right at my side. She taught my toddler son to throw a ball so they could play fetch. She never had perfect leash manners for us, but if a little hand wanted to hold a leash, her loose-leash walking was suddenly impeccable.

Preparing for Loss

One Saturday in February, our perfect dog woke up with a cough. It was soon evident we didn’t have long left, and we were honest with the kids: Callie is very sick, and she is going to die soon. My stepmom died in May, not long after a diagnosis of metastatic melanoma, so our family has had many conversations about death in the last year. We are not particularly religious, so our conversations do not usually involve any type of afterlife. When someone dies, their body stops working, and their heart stops beating. We do not see them again.

The process of my stepmother’s death seemed more abstract to the children, they only saw her once when she was sick, and they didn’t go to her funeral. Callisto’s decline happened in very real time in our home over the course of 5 days. We talked about her trips to the clinic and what we were finding, that the medicines were not helping, and she was not going to get better. We watched her breathing change, and my son slept on the couch with me over the nights as I stayed up to care for her.

That day before Callisto died, I told our five-year-old son, “Callie is going to die soon. Do you want to be there when she dies?” He was very clear that he didn’t want to be there when she died. He didn’t want to see her die, but he did want to know when she died. We told our two-year-old daughter she was going to die, but we did not offer her the option to be present. Both my husband and I wanted to be fully present for the end of her life and didn’t feel like our daughter being there would allow for that.

Saying Goodbye

The next day when it became clear we could not keep her comfortable any longer, we got pizza, and she had her own meat lover’s pizza all to herself. Our kids told her goodbye, and my husband and I took her for one last car ride to the clinic. She was a marvelous family dog for the second half of her life, but for the first half of her life with us, it was just us three, and in those last moments, it was just us three. She had one last whipped cream cup from Starbucks, and we petted her and thanked her for all the good years and all the adventures while she passed away.

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Her presence in our lives was huge, and her absence is notable. My two-year-old will still sometimes ask, “Mama, are you sad about Callie? I am, too.” She will sometimes add, “She was very old.” My five-year-old son doesn’t want me to look at pictures of her. “It will make you cry.” He’s right, but I remind him it’s ok to cry, and I love looking at old pictures of her and remembering. My son won’t say he misses her. I watch him express it in other ways. We found a little bit of her fur when cleaning, and my son said she visited us at night and left it. When we get ready for our evening walks, sometimes he says he wishes she could visit for a walk.

What Pets Teach Us

We value what pets bring to the lives of our families and all the valuable lessons they help teach our children: responsibility, loyalty, empathy, and in the end, they help teach us about death and grief. For most families, long gone are the days of fabrications about beloved pets sent off to live on farms.

No matter your family’s views about death and the afterlife, the passing of a pet can provide an experience that is much more accessible to help them understand and prepare for the losses of human family and friends. Tiny holes dug in backyards for departed pet fish, prayer requests for a dying cat, children gathered around a family dog at a euthanasia – these moments, these small rituals, are all important moments in the last lesson our pets teach us.

Five Ways to Help Your Child Grieve the Loss of a Pet

  1. Be open and honest.
  2. Avoid euphemisms such as “he went to sleep,” “he crossed the rainbow bridge,” or “he went to live on a farm.” Instead, use the words “died” and “death” so they can understand it is permanent.
  3. Allow them to talk about their feelings. They may feel sad for months or may seem ok after a few days. We all grieve differently, so allow them the opportunity to talk if they want.
  4. Consider a ceremony or small memorial. Place a statue in the garden, plant a tree, or frame some nice pictures of the child with their pet. Save a lock of hair or their collar.
  5. It’s ok to show your emotion also. The death of a beloved family pet is difficult. Grieving together is a healthy emotional response.
Callister walking two dogs

Pets are important family members!

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Categories: Grand Life