6 homeschool moms were recently asked to write about the topic of dead pets. Here is what they said:
Amy Kalscheur from Indiana
Several years ago, when our oldest child was 9 years old, our cat Sam was hit by a car and died. I had no idea that it had happened—didn’t even realize that the cat was missing—until I received a phone call from my neighbor telling me that he had seen the cat in the street. My neighbor John, a grandfather figure to my children, had scooped up the cat and dug a hole in the backyard (there are several acres of land behind us) and buried him so we wouldn’t have deal with it.
Horrified, I told him that I needed to see immediately where the cat was buried. Upon seeing the site, I told John that we needed to dig him up. John stared at me as if I was crazy. But I insisted. You see, when I was a child, my family on five different occasions had a pet dog. And each time one died, whether it was because of an accident or illness, I was never allowed to help bury my pet or even be there for the burial. I have always had a bit of regret about that. So now that our cat had died, I wanted to allow my children to decide how they needed to grieve.
So John and I unburied the cat. We brushed him off and placed him in a box. I ran to the house and got our family together and told them as gently as I could that Sam had died. Their reactions were varied, and I remember exactly what they each said. Olivia cried and asked why it happened. Sophia said, “But I liked that cat.” Alex, predictably asked for a new cat. But Joseph’s reaction was what I guessed it would be and the reason for my demand to unbury the cat. He looked at me, not as a 9 year old child, but as a young man determined to care for his family, and said, “I want to see him.” I told him that the cat was in the back in a box and he needed to be buried, and Joseph said, “I’ll bury him. He’s my cat.”
Together we went out to the site—Olivia stayed behind, not wanting to see Sam—Joseph with a shovel in hand. We prayed over Sam and thanked God for the opportunity to have him as a pet. Then, Alex and Sophia lowered Sam into the ground. My husband and I stood back and let the children lovingly repose their pet. Then Joseph, slowly and methodically, began to shovel dirt over his body. I looked behind me and saw that even Olivia had come out to be part of our ceremony, though she stood about 20 feet from us. Everyone got to say goodbye in their own way.
Pets can be wonderful companions. But the lessons they teach us, from how to care for others to how to grieve for a loved one, are powerful life-long lessons that every child needs to learn.
This is one of my favorite memories. Our neighbor John came up to me afterward and told me, “Amy, you are raising some pretty tough kids.” Tough, as in able to handle tough situations—not hard-hearted. It was then I started realizing that I needed to be deliberate with raising my children, not just let it happen. (As a side note, my children never knew that I dug up the cat…until now. They read this over my shoulder and are cracking up.)
Colleen Billing from Illinois
I had always said, “I will never have a baby and a dog at the same time!!” And I meant it!! When our youngest turned 5, the badgering began!! In the end, the kids won out, and we got our first puppy, Isaac (named after St. Isaac Jogues, of course). All the hopes and dreams of bringing a little puppy into our lives came true; the kids loved him beyond measure, they fought over who got to feed him, who got to walk him, who got to brush him, etc. And many of the nightmares came true as well: he peed, EVERYWHERE!! He barked in the middle of the night, and he was very high maintenance. Oh, I was just starting to regularly sleep through the night!!!!
But when Isaac turned one, he started to chill out a bit, and even I really started to enjoy him. Our family was going on a family vacation for a week, so we hired one of our children’s friends to dog-sit while we were gone. My husband went to drop Isaac off at their house while I was finishing up running errands. Before my husband even returned back home, his cell phone rang with the horrifying news that Isaac had dashed out the front door of our friend’s house and was hit and killed by a truck flying down their street. The truck never stopped, and 5 of her children witnessed the accident. It was horrifying, for everyone.
When we should have been leaving for our vacation, we were instead gathered in the backyard digging a grave for our first dog, a dog we had for only 9 months! Everyone was crying, and we were all so shocked. But what came out of that day were acts of kindness that my children and I will never forget. First of all, the oldest son of our dog-sitting friends carefully placed the body of our dead dog in a box, ‘good side up’, if you know what I mean. This young man was busy, but he took time out of his busy day to do something so very thoughtful for us. As we gathered in our backyard for our little funeral service, several other families that we were going on our trip with, started arriving in our backyard as well. Isaac wasn’t their dog, and they didn’t need to sacrifice several hours of their vacation time, but they did, all to support our family during a time of great grief.
That was a day that my kids were reminded how much good Catholic friendship really matters. Even my teenage sons were in tears, and the world would probably mock those emotions, but my sons have good friends, and those friends were here to support them during a terrible sadness. The death of a pet is always so sad, but the day Isaac died was a day of hope and encouragement for us as well. It was a day that we were reminded how compassionate God is, often acting though the generous hearts of his people. So now, whenever I see a post on Facebook or hear that a friend lost a pet, I always respond with a note or a call to express my sympathy. And on a happy note, it didn’t take long to give into the pleas for a new dog. Pedro, a 5 lb., full-grown Cavapoo (Cavalier-Spaniel/Toy Poodle) came into our family a month later, and has been the greatest, sweetest, furry friend that a family could ever desire. We are working hard to keep him away from trucks!!
Ginny Seuffert from Illinois
Our family hasn’t been very lucky with dogs.
We moved once with three dogs. In a new habitat, the two males began to pee all over the house. We tried putting them outside all day, but we would wake up to puddles the dogs had “marked” all over the house. We had a toddler and two crawling babies at the time. The two were both over 10 years old and didn’t last long in the new environment.
The next dog was old and got very sick. I took the kids to the movies when my husband had the dog put down. We lied and said the dog had died while we were gone.
The next dog got cancer at 5 years old. My husband loved the dog better than he loved me so it was pretty traumatic for him. My son-in-law took the dog so he didn’t have to do it. The kids felt so sorry for Daddy that no one said a word.
The next dog got congestive heart failure. I really loved that dog, but I got stuck because I has taken her in for an evaluation. Left with a dog, came back alone. I have to admit the kids (Now we are talking grandchildren) seemed to feel bad for about five minutes.
The present dog is a hound. My backyard looks like the surface of the moon. Apparently the reason she is digging is because she can smell the skeletons and carcasses of 26 years of dead parakeets, fish, and assorted rabbits and squirrels that the aforementioned dogs sent to their eternal rewards. Next topic?
Colleen Hammond from Texas
“I don’t want to live in the country anymore, Mommy. Everything dies!”
Our son was 8-years-old when he said that, and we had been living in the country for less than a year. In that short space of time, we had experienced nearly a dozen creature deaths—mostly chickens, but far too many kitten misadventures. But that particular day, the death of our momma cat (Marbles) was particularly traumatic. And we all saw it happen.
As violent sobs racked his body, I wrapped my arms around him, buried my nose into his hair, and tried to think of the right thing to say. Up until now, we’d been able to hide the death of a kitten, or we took the easy way out and said, “She ran away”. Now what?
Pets? They’re more like family members. Each has its own unique personality. We eat with them. Sleep with them. Cuddle with them. They greet us at the door and they make us laugh, and they can irritate us. A pet may be the one our children turn to for comfort and companionship when they’re ill or upset. When a beloved furry member of our family dies, our hearts break at the loss of their place in our home and in our lives.
The more we love, the more it hurts to lose the one you love. So when someone (or something) we ardently love dies, we’re in more pain than when someone dies that we barely know.
The deeper our love, the more our pain at the loss.
Imagine the pain our Blessed Mother felt at the foot of the cross. Her immense love for her Son was more than we will ever be able to experience or understand. So was her pain. Think, too, of the infinite love our Lord has for each soul and how He grieves when people choose to leave Him and be condemned to Hell for all eternity.
The love of a pet could be our child’s first great love. And because a pet’s life cycle is shorter than ours, chances are they’ll experience the death of a pet before the death of a person. It’s their first encounter with death and dying and it will be what frames their understanding of mortality.
Depending on their age, they may assume a trip to the doctor may cure their beloved confidante. Or, more traumatically, they may speculate that something they said or did caused their pet’s death.
I’ve learned that honesty is essential. We never say the pet “went to sleep”, as children are then afraid of bedtime. We don’t say they “passed away”, as that is too vague for them to understand. I find a straightforward answer the best: “Their body doesn’t work anymore and they had to leave it.” It’s also what I say when a person dies.
If euthanasia is in order, I detail the process: “The doctor will give them medicine to put them asleep, then stop their heart. They won’t feel any pain.” I also point out how it’s not murder because the personality that animates an animal’s body is different than our human soul.
Children’s questions are really a plea to be comforted, so I spare them traumatic details and give honest answers as gently as possible. Everyone grieves differently, so I honor their suffering and watch for the five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Having lived in the country for over a decade now, death has become a regular part of our life. I admit there have been a few times I’ve fallen back to, “she ran away” to cover the death of a pet. It doesn’t get any easier, but it certainly reminds us that life is precious. Life is short. We’ve learned to love fully, live joyfully, and appreciate each other while we’re here.
Because it’s not just in the country that everything dies.
Mary Ellen Barrett from New York
Three weeks ago we said goodbye to our pet hamster Sherlock. Sherlock was the fourth hamster we have had in the Barrett home which shows my fierce determination to not be a dog owner.
Our first hamster was the first pet for our three oldest children. Ryan, Katie, and Erin had begged for a pet and Ryan’s occupational therapist thought it would be good for him. A hamster was right up my alley having never had a pet as a child. Rosie was a cute little thing and was amusing to watch run in the wheel that we had in the cage as well as that plastic ball they run around the house trapped inside.
Rosie passed away at three years old, quite a ripe old age for a hamster. When I discovered her lifeless little self I was immediately concerned about traumatizing the children. I was also, slightly more, concerned by the fact that there was now a dead rat in my house. Rosie alive was cute, Rosie dead was vermin. I called my husband and he declined to make the forty mile commute back home to deal with a dead hamster, so it was on me. I called the three little children together and explained that Rosie had passed away in the night. Ryan immediately bowed his head and when he lifted it he asked about lunch. So much for traumatized. Katie and Erin were sad, appropriately so and Erin, always so very soft-hearted, asked about Rosie’s funeral.
No one is ever going to call me a feminist. I told her that the funeral would take place when daddy came home because daddies bury pets. She seemed satisfied with that and I put the cage on the deck covered in a plastic tablecloth to discourage the neighborhood stray cats from interfering with our funeral plans by making away with the deceased. When dad arrived home he was met at the door by two very serious girls each with a fist full of dandelions asking when the funeral was to be. I received the hairy eyeball and the unspoken question, “I thought you were taking care of this?” I smiled and mentioned the hamster and shovel were on the deck and the funeral was in five minutes. Rosie was duly buried and Ryan, Katie, and Erin seemed to find some relief in saying a prayer and casting flowers over their little friend.
This recent hamster, Sherlock, was the pet of the younger three. Sherlock was only with us a few months, he was adopted and about a year old when we got him so it wasn’t a shock. These little moments, explaining that all life eventually dies and that it’s part of God’s plan for all creation, not just us, can be very challenging for moms and dads. A five year old who is sad at the loss of his little pet and wanting to know why he had to die will never fail to tug at my heart strings but yet I will continue to encourage them to have hamsters, and fish and this summer we will be taking on a turtle from another family. The lessons of love and loss, responsibility and perseverance, caring and commitment are an important part of family life and fosters a habit of being good stewards of God’s creation, no matter what size your pet.
Missy Savage from North Carolina
I love this question! Clearly I can give advice on what NOT to do. Let me explain. Right before our sixth child was due my mother came over to collect my other 5 children and take them to her house to give me a much deserved rest! During that time, my husband and I noticed that our two aging cats were really sick. We had been so busy raising kids we unintentionally didn’t notice their symptoms until it was too late. After some advice and agony we made the decision to put them to sleep. When my kids finally returned home we logically explained to them how sick the animals had become. We very quickly learned that kids aged 9, 7, and 5 are not always logical beings! We came up against tears, anger, and hatred from our usual loving children! They were most upset over the fact that they didn’t get a chance to say good bye. Our children will still throw it back at us, even almost 4 years later whenever the idea enters their minds showing us those wounds are still close to the surface. Although it seemed to be the right approach in the moment, we would have changed things if we ever had the situation arise again upon reflection.
As a result, I have to admit that we became gun shy about bringing another animal in the house and didn’t for the next 3 years. However within the last year though, my youngest daughter really wanted a fish and got one which she named Rainbow. This fish was beloved by all the kiddos. The fish lasted about 6 months until we came downstairs one day to notice that he was only occasionally swimming and also floating on his side the rest of the time. We shared with them this was not a good sign and indicated he might die. This allowed the kids to experience denial and anger. For 2 days the fish held on while the kids constantly checked on and prayed for his recovery. Additionally, they yelled at one another for things like not changing his water enough or feeding him too many treats. We talked about it isn’t the time to blame each other or even themselves, because this is just how nature works. Then they asked the question of whether God would save the fish. This gave us as a family the opportunity to discuss the aspects of creation and how God is protecting everything he created. Maybe this was his way of bringing Rainbow home with him we pondered. For our older children, this opened the door for them to ask those questions they had been thinking about for their own life and why is there death.
After Rainbow finally passed, there came more tears, sadness, as well as many reassuring hugs. This expression of emotions was yet another opportunity for us as parents to discuss how all these feelings are normal and that most people feel this way when a beloved pet dies. God is good to give us this opportunity to share his love with our children when they are hurting. This way of dealing with the death of a pet was much better for all of us in the family and we actually felt that God was present with us during this time! Rainbow received a proper burial in the backyard and for a month after his death, my 4 year old, would ask anyone who happened to stop by our home if they would like to see her fish. Of course they were not expecting her to take them by the hand and walk right past the empty fish tank to the spot where he was buried. I don’t know what was more priceless, the fact that my kids accepted the death or the look on the poor innocent faces of those visitors who didn’t have a clue of what to say to her taking them outside. From one who has attempted different ways, take my advice that the latter approach is a much better way for your children and you in the long-term!
All 6 of these ladies are regular speakers at the IHM Homeschool Conferences. Several have also written books including:
Dressing with Dignity: Second Edition by Colleen Hammond
It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way by Ginny Seuffert
Ginny’s Gems: Home Management Essentials by Ginny Seuffert
Ginny’s Gems: 10 Essentials for Teaching Your Preschooler At Home by Ginny Seuffert
God is Good All the Time: A Journal of a Breast Cancer Patient by Amy Kalscheur