I’ve been thinking a lot lately about pets and death. Perhaps because I’ve had a number of friends who’ve recently lost long-time family pets. Perhaps because Biscuit (our dorkie-poo mutt) recently used our canoe as a springboard to jump the fence and follow us down to Asheville Pizza & Brewing. Neighbors herded him toward home and eventually dropped him back over the fence, but only after he’d run down to Merrimon Avenue and into the road, according to one on-looker.
The thought of our small but speedy dog racing into the traffic on Merrimon Avenue nauseates me. The image nearly sent our girl into hysterics.
In addition to teaching humans to take care of creatures other than themselves, pets offer life lessons on grief, guilt and danger (I’ll hit on pet responsibility in another column—today I’m all about death). Often a child’s first brush with grief springs from a pet’s visit to the Stygian shore. And though I’m probably more than halfway done with my life, I’m still young enough that I’ve grieved over more pets than people. Life on four legs can be short.
My first pet death left me with years of soul-shattering guilt and grief. When I was 9 years old, I forgot about a play date I’d agreed to with a needy friend. She called me crying, so I hastily said I’d go home from school with her the next day, even though I really didn’t want to spend the afternoon with her.
When I got home from the play date, my mom told me that my 8-month-old Golden Retriever, Charlie, had followed our maid to the bus stop and was hit by the city bus. Someone had picked his broken body up off the street and taken him to the vet, but he didn’t survive the night. I was devastated.
I assumed that God had killed my beloved dog because I’d hurt the little girl by forgetting about her the first time. I knew that if I’d been at home, Charlie would’ve been with me. I thought I was being punished for being an inconsiderate friend. No wonder I broke up with God a few years later.
I’ve had some longer-lived pets, including Charlie II, the Golden who replaced Charlie I. He lived for 12 years, until he suffered a stroke during a lunar eclipse while I was at university. My grief when he died was intense, but not as shocking to my system as his predecessor’s death. It was like grieving for a senior as opposed to a young person.
My kids have yet to have to deal with the death of a beloved pet. Gatsby, my 12-year-old tuxedo cat, was euthanized when my girl was 3, but she was too young to truly comprehend the loss. Plus, Gatsby was so old and cranky that interaction between them had been minimal.
We’ve had a number of fish die and a tree frog pass on, though only a few tears were spilled over the finny or the amphibian. We had a near miss when our cat, Houdini, was hit by a car, but quick action on the part of some neighbors plus several days at the vet hospital saved him.
Houdini’s accident brought up the chance to talk about potential pet demise. I took our girl to the vet hospital to see him when he was in bad shape. She talks often of seeing her injured cat.
My goal with my kids is to be honest and open about our pets’ health, in hopes of preparing them, if possible, for the deaths that will happen in their lifetimes. I also realize that regardless of prep, when it happens, it’s likely to be one of the more memorable and tramatic events of their childhood.
Yet, I hope they learn that the joy and companionship pets bring to us, the memories that they leave with us, regardless of how short their lives may be, are worth the pain when they’re gone.
Gatsby’s ashes reside in the kitchen, which Enviro-spouse thinks is totally weird, but which the kids think is normal. Of course we have the old cat’s remains in a box in the room that we spend the most time in. Why wouldn’t we?Even though the memories are mostly mine, they’re still part of our family history and story together.
Even so, I fervently hope that we have a long time before another box of ashes enters our lives.
Anne Fitten “Edgy Mama” Glenn writes about a number of subjects, including parenting, at www.edgymama.com.