I wasn’t raised with pets. Growing up in a farming community, my grandfather said animals are blessings and should be treated well, but it’s best not to form relationships with your Thanksgiving dinner.
Decades later, I was blinded by love and adopted cats with my new husband.
Fifteen years and six cats later, I’ve learned a few things about these animals we don’t eat: They grow on you, and when your child finds comfort in pet snuggles, you’ll be in their debt.
Speaking of debt, buying litter is like setting money on fire. Basically, I pay for my cats to poop. But I digress…
Upon receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis for our cat, Max, we brought him home and started planning for the loss of our favorite playmate. After consulting friends and experts, here are the steps we took after Max’s death:
As a nurse, I believe in the “work of grieving,” and using one’s heart and hands makes this process concrete for a child. I printed pictures of Max, bought very simple scrapbooks, and asked the girls to make memory books. Many healthy tears were turned into treasured keepsakes in the weeks following his death.
2. Hold a ceremony
Holding a pet funeral is a very personal decision. Our daughters were too young to understand what a funeral was, and my invented ceremony was a disaster. At ages 9 and 11, Beluga-the-Hamster’s ceremony rivaled that of a sitting statesman. Our daughters buried a tiny casket in the pouring down rain while singing. A little kooky? Yes. Helpful? Absolutely.
3. Find and read helpful books
I’m a fan of “The Tenth Good Thing About Barney” by Judith Viorst. It addresses grief in a child’s voice, does not presuppose all readers believe in heaven, and does not end with the idea that a new pet will heal the sense of loss. It’s an elegantly simple picture book with the message that grief takes patience, and it’s a good thing to remember.
4. Make a memorial
Our family tradition is to plant something beautiful in the yard. We have climbing roses, weeping willows and flowers, all planted in memory of a person or animal. Our daughters also built a small memorial in the yard. Again, it was nothing formal, as it was far more meaningful to them that they made it themselves.
5. Make an ornament
If you celebrate any holiday involving tchotchkes, a memory piece is a lovely way to remember a pet. Every year we hang Max’s silliest picture on the Christmas tree, and honor that he will always be in our family.
Most children do not have comparative loss, and therefore a pet may be the equivalent grief of an adult losing a best friend.
It’s good to have feelings, even sad ones, and learning how to express and manage those feelings turns grieving into growth.
That being said, I still miss my Max. Buddy, wherever you are, I would never eat you for Thanksgiving dinner.