How do we help intense and sensitive children cope when a pet dies? If your family’s anything like mine, you threw out the rule book about what you ’should’ do in these situations long ago.
When we lost our cat this week, I just focused on being present to what my kids needed, moment by moment. Coaches refer to this as ‘holding space’.
Kids who have OEs often have vivid imaginations and an incredible sense of humour. Mine amazed and inspired me yesterday in the way they used those qualities to bring to bring light into a sad day.
We took our sweet cat for a check-up on Tuesday morning when she appeared, thin and weak, after several days’ absence. At lunchtime the vet phoned to say that Flissy – whose birth in our playroom six years ago Cordie and Jasper watched – had terminal cancer. By 5pm the three of us were at Flissy’s side while she was gently put to sleep.
Honouring complex individual reactions
My children reacted to the news quite differently from one another.
While my 11-year-old son burst into tears, his 12-year-old sister remained dry eyed. A stranger might say she almost smiled. I was reminded of how Cordie used to get into trouble at pre-school for ’smirking’ at inappropriate moments.
Thankfully I know my daughter. I know how deeply she feels things, and I know how hard she works to find strategies to process her intense emotions I honoured her reaction, (while part of me was thankful that my son, at least, wanted the hug I craved too).
The healing power of laughter
After gentle cuddles we left Fliss to enjoy her final afternoon in peace, and set off for the river with our dogs.
The jokes started in the car. I’ve shared some below. I warn you – the humour was dark. If you’re upset by conversations about dismembered feline corpses you should stop reading now.
The children talked about getting a new cat, giggling at the blatant tastelessness of having that conversation before Fliss was even gone. My daughter googled local pets for sale. We joked about arranging to pick up a new cat on the way back from the vets later.
An eavesdropper might have thought us heartless, but I knew that humour was helping my kids cope with something that might overwhelm their sensitive and intense souls if they focused on their grief for too long.
The intensity of our shared experience brought an extra loving dimension to our interactions that afternoon. Sibling bickering subsided as the children raced roly-poly style down hills and competed to invent the silliest cat names.
Dark humour on the way to the vet
We laughed through our tears as we drove Flissy to her final vet appointment. My son’s humour became darker.
“I hope they give her nice drugs before they get the chainsaw out.”
J: “You know, we needn’t have paid the vet to do this. I could’ve just swung her around in the carrier. I’ve always wanted to do that.”
Me: “Maybe we could ask the vet if we could have a moment alone with Flissy afterwards. We’ll pop her in the carrier and you can have a little swing?”
“Do you think they’d let me keep a paw? Or maybe her head?”
In the vet’s surgery tears rolled down our cheeks as we stroked Flissy’s warm, velvety fur for the last time and felt her tiny body go limp beneath our hands.
Before settling up I asked the vet, “Do you still have that swing outside?”
The children ran out to play. (No cats were swung.)
As we drove home my son said sadly,
“I keep thinking of all those experiences she never got to have. Meet a panda … eat her first diamond.”
I suggested he might have a future as a grief counsellor. For the right sort of person.
“Yeah, they’d have to have a very black sense of humour,” he replied.
Back home, I quietly removed Fliss’s food bowl from the counter.
“How about we ditch dinner and order Dominoes pizza?” Jasper suggested. ” We could watch that episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon gets all the cats.”
And that’s what we did.
“I feel so sad,” he said softly at bedtime.
“I know sweetie. I do too.”