We first noticed something was wrong with our beloved cat around Christmas. Always feisty and rambunctious, he loved to eat the ribbon and wrapping paper on presents but this year there was a new wrinkle to his activity — he starting throwing up all over the house.
My wife and I hoped that he was unable to process his ribbon-y and paper-y treats and they made him sick. However, we feared that as he advanced in age, this might be evidence of a larger problem. He was 15 years old and, despite his age, still showed indications of his youthful vigor. He loved to jump up on my robe-covered shoulder after my shower and he always wanted to climb on counters, tables and other areas that were off limits to him. Still, he was getting older.
His sickness ebbed and flowed and we took him to the vet who recommended some treatments and new food to try and discern the problem. A couple of weeks later, the larger problem revealed itself. On a trip to the vet, she felt a tumor in his belly and she suspected it was cancer. Our hearts broke.
We tried some more medication and gave him every treat — of the food variety — that he craved. But a tougher situation loomed — how to deal with the end of his life and how to break it to our kids.
Our cat predated our children by years. For a long time, the cat was our child and we doted on him and lavished attention on him. When the kids came, obviously, he took a back seat. But our boys loved him, even though he often rebuffed their advances, and, on one memorable occasion, left a nasty scratch on the face of our oldest who dared get too frisky with him.
As the days ticked by, the cat’s health deteriorated quickly. He stopped eating and could barely jump up on our bed at the end of the day, let alone my 6-foot high shoulder. We knew his days were numbered. Then, on a trip to the vet, we got the news. His cancer spread and he was likely suffering. We made the agonizing decision that so many pet owners face — we decided to put him down. Sitting in that examination room felt like the end of our world.
We held him, said farewell to him, wept and watched him get carried off to his eternal slumber. The boys were inconsolable.
Fast forward a few days and we are still grieving our family member and we catch ourselves looking for him lurking around the dinner table, hoping for a a few crumbs to fall on the floor or at night laying on our chests as we watched tv.
It’s terribly sad but it’s also a time to impart a few valuable lessons to our kids about the death of an animal. Here are a few of our thoughts:
Don’t hide the truth. It might seem easier in the moment to avoid discussing such a painful topic with your kids. After all, we often want to shield them from pain and grief. That’s a natural parental reaction. However, doing that only delays the inevitable because our kids will surely notice an animal that isn’t doing well or is suffering or one day is gone. Be as upfront as you can, in a way that a child can understand and offer them time to talk about their feelings.
Talk about it. Once your animal is gone there will be many emotions unfolding in your house. The other day we watched our youngest walk into the closet where our cat hung out, see that he wasn’t there and slowly walk away. Make sure that there’s an air of openness in your home to talk about the many feelings engendered by this sad event. Everyone has memories with the animal, make sure to share them. It will help with the grieving process.
Let them know that their emotions are ok. Kids might be unsure if their feelings of loss and sadness are normal. This might be new territory for them and they might never have felt these things before. Do your best to reassure them that their feelings of loss and sadness are appropriate.