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White Knuckle Parenting: Losing a Furry Friend

The death of a family pet can be devastating for kids. Hopefully my family's story can give you some ideas to help your own children with pet loss.

My family had a sad weekend. Cassidy, our 13-year-old dog, has been in declining health for a long time. On Saturday, we had our vet come to our home to put her to sleep while she sat on her dog bed and my husband and I petted her head. 

It was the hardest thing I've done in a long time. Even worse, it was emotionally wrenching for my kids.

Losing a pet is difficult for anyone, but it is especially hard for children who don't necessarily understand euthanasia or what happens after death. Sadly, my kids have become experienced at losing furry family members. Over the past couple of years, we have lost five mice and a beloved cat. It has been heartbreaking every time.

I believe in being honest and straightforward with my kids even when the subject is difficult. Furthermore, because of my son's autism, it is helpful for me to be direct and concrete to make sure he understands what is happening. My husband and I made sure that my kids knew what was coming.

We've been telling them for weeks that she was sick. We made her appointment a week and a half ago and began the difficult task of telling our children that she only had a week left. It is so tempting to say things like, "She probably won't be with us much longer," or "The vet will help her so she doesn't hurt anymore," but those easy things are the same things that will hurt them when they discover their true meaning and unexpectedly find out she is gone for good.

We arranged for my kids to play at a friend's house on Saturday during the time when the vet would come over. We told them that while they were gone the vet would come by to help Cassidy die because she was very sick and we didn't want her to be in pain anymore.

They were hard words to say so plainly, but they needed to be said. I didn't want them to hope that maybe the vet could make her better and they'd come back to their beloved dog.

It was my youngest who suggested having a party for her the day before. What a brilliant idea. I only wish I'd been smart enough to think of it. We spent some time doting on Cassidy and feeding her a can of dog food. We ate dog bone-shaped graham crackers and cake. We took photos of each of us with Cassidy and took some of her fur so we could remember her.

Then my oldest son found a posterboard and started asking us questions about what we loved about Cassidy, recording our answers on the poster. By the end of the dog party, we had a beautiful poster, complete with photos and things we want to remember about our dog. My kids, even though they were still sad about her impending loss, felt that they had done something to make her happy and to honor her.

Talking about Cassidy and celebrating her with a party was how I helped my kids deal with her death, but there are many books that can help. Here are some that my friends recommended for me:

The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst

Dog Heaven and Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant

Remembering Ruby by Melisa Wells

Goodbye Mousie by Robie H. Harris

Lifetimes by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen

Remember Rafferty by Joy Johnson

The Invisible String by Patrice Karst

When Dinosaurs Die by Laurie Krasny Brown

Cassidy was a dog who liked to be told she was a good dog more than anything. To distract her from being upset at the vet's office or when getting her nails cut or being groomed, I would always repeat one thing over and over. "You are a good dog, Cassidy. Goooood dog. You're so good." That was just what I told her as I rubbed her ears on Saturday afternoon when the vet was at our house.

The day after she died, my husband told me that he had a dream about her. In his dream, he was playing with her in a field and she was running around and happy—not in pain any more. There were other dogs there too and she was playing with them as well. When my husband was ready to go, he looked for Cassidy, but couldn't find her. "I think she was still playing with the other dogs," he told me, tears in his eyes.

"That sounds like doggy heaven," I said, half-joking.

"I think it was," he said. "I think she's in doggy heaven."

You know, whether I believe in doggy heaven or not, I think it is a good place for her to be. 

We'll miss you, Cassidy. You were a good dog.

Many thanks to Wheaton Animal Hospital for their loving care of Cassidy.

Jean, a.k.a. Stimey, writes a personal blog at Stimeyland and runs an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/Stimeyland.

AMSV March 19, 2013 at 05:06 PM
I'm sorry for the loss of your beloved dog. I know how hard that can be. We are fans of Wheaton Animal Hospital, too. They are such good people.
Beth Glidden Andersen March 20, 2013 at 01:00 AM
I didn't think I could love you any more than I already do. The way you handled this situation and the loving dignity you afforded Cassidy right up to the end...takes my breath away and leaves me with tears streaming down my cheeks.
Jessica McFadden March 20, 2013 at 01:15 AM
I love the dog party and the poster and that you shared this intimate family moment with us all.

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