Why We Should Let Our Children Grieve the Death of Their Pets

Animals

Why We Should Let Our Children Grieve the Death of Their Pets

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

L

ast year for my birthday, I made my sister buy me the book “Lily and the Octopus” by Steven Rowley. Poncho, our dog was in his thirteenth year and I needed some form of preparation for what was around the bend. Immersing myself in a story about a struggling writer and the reckoning with his beloved dog’s illness and her subsequent death felt like a good attempt to warm up my heart muscles for the upcoming pain.

As Rowley reminisces about Lily’s simple life and the purpose it gave him, he reaches a confluence of grief and self-discovery. His words transported me into a story that contained so much of my own struggles as a hapless writer and devoted dog parent. 

In the subsequent months, Poncho’s heart condition deteriorated rapidly. The frequency of vet visits increased, he spent more time panting heavily and the medications took a toll on his energy levels. Then one quiet night in November, it happened. After a doctor’s visit to replenish his blood with oxygen, we returned home and set him on his cushion in the living room. Five minutes later, he passed. 

It didn’t matter that I’d read that book and knew what to expect or how many times the doctor had told us that he was running out of time, the sadness hit like a hurricane. I wailed, I choked, I drowned. I held on to my mother, sister and husband; each of us swirling in our own pain trying to steady ourselves together. 

I’d always been so proud of my intuitiveness as a mother and yet I had failed to address a significant milestone in her life– her first experience with death.

Some time before dawn broke, I crawled into bed and curled up by my daughter’s side. She would be up in less than two hours and we’d have to tell her. What would she say when she saw his glassy eyes devoid of life? Should a five-year-old even be allowed to see a corpse? Here was a girl who stopped watching “The Good Dinosaur” when Arlo’s father died while saving him from a flash flood; she certainly wasn’t ready to digest the physicality of death. 

After an hour of disturbed sleep, I woke up. Rigor mortis was setting in, turning Poncho’s limp body into a stiff, cold mass. I sat with my mother at the dining table, chewing on some dry toast and swallowing against my will. There was a lot to do for the day and I needed food as fuel. While I had already decided against letting my daughter see Poncho’s body, my mother chided me, “Don’t do that Sangee. Let her say goodbye.” 

So when she woke up and set off to her usual spot on the couch to have breakfast and watch TV, we sat her down and told her. She blinked hard and asked us, “So he’s gone?” We explained that he’d been sick for a while and now he would be in a better place without suffering. The tears came and we held her. When we took her to see him shrouded in his blanket, she refused to look and buried her face in her father’s chest. As an effort to distract her from her anguish, we sent her to school and returned to making arrangements for the crematorium. 

I really hate the adage “Life goes on.” It’s a terrible truth to live with especially when you have to carry a lifeless body, place it on a wooden frame, watch it burn, and feel a vacuum expand your insides and consume you. You remain stuck in a pinprick in time, unmoving, fearing the process of moving on and the inevitability of fading memories

We spent the rest of the week clearing his things. In the evenings, I watched my daughter stare at the sky quietly for a long time. Her father had taken inspiration from Lion King’s Simba-Mufasa relationship and told her that Poncho was now a star. It comforted her to stare into the darkness and know that he still existed in a different form. Some of our closest friends came over with wine and food and we celebrated his life – the antics, his cranky personality, the unhealthy obsession he had with chasing people with his blankets, how much he loved pizza crusts. With each passing day, I glided through the five stages of grief in no particular order until I landed at the final destination of acceptance where I could tell myself, “He’s gone but boy what a wonderful journey this has been.”

A month after Poncho’s death, I went for the quarterly PTA to my daughter’s school. While chatting about her progress, the class teacher told me how difficult it had been for her to get over Poncho’s death. She would blank out for long periods and sit in a corner weeping while her best friend hugged and consoled her. I’d always been so proud of my intuitiveness as a mother and yet I had failed to address a significant milestone in her life– her first experience with death.

I thought back to my own memory from when I was ten and lost my cousin in an accident. I grieved alone in my room; crying into a pillow and reliving the last days we spent together while listening to the “Michael Learns to Rock” tape he gave me as a parting present. All I wanted was for someone to sit and cry with me, tell me that sometimes the ones we love die but the world will go on. But everyone around me was too busy trying to cope and I felt like my pain didn’t matter. Until today, there are parts of me that ache when I think about my dead cousin.

He was the closest being she had to a sibling and I did not prepare her for or help her come to terms with his absence.

Two decades later, I have come full circle; making the same mistake with my child by not wholly being there for her first mourning. When she said the words, “So he’s gone?”, I only heard her sadness, not her confusion.  Poncho was the pet that had watched her grow, licked her face and sticky fingers every time she ate chocolate, barked protectively when anyone raised their voice at her, waited at the bus stop with her every morning. He was the closest being she had to a sibling and I did not prepare her for or help her come to terms with his absence.

I was so caught up in my grief that I failed to recognise her capacity to feel as torn as I was, albeit in different ways. Watching her seek solace from the stars deflected me from the process of talking her through the unresolved emotions. There were little ways in which she’d asked to be talked to that I had overlooked; drawing him as a small black smudge in a landscape painting at art class, asking me if there was any way he would come back, wanting to know where his body went, and why only a small piece of bone remained in a keepsake box in my wardrobe drawer. 

Going back to “Lily and the Octopus”, Rowley writes, “Grief is a pathological condition. It’s just that so many of us go through it in life that we never think to treat it as such.” But how do explain what death really means to a child? How much of hope do you let them cling on to until they’re old enough to understand human mortality? The answers are tough because they entail talking about the idea of forever.

The hardest part of parenting is finding the balance between protecting our children from pain and letting them feel it in its entirety to grow. Watching her despair made me feel helpless which is why I succumbed to sidetracking her sorrow, thinking that it would help her move on better. As much as I aspire to be the mother who will always be able to decode my child’s complex emotions and be there for her even when she doesn’t ask for help, there will be many more times like this when the human in me takes precedence.

One of my favourite words is lament; both for its meaning and how beautiful it sounds when you repeat it. With time, people find their own ways to translate deep loss and heal; my mother does it through telling people long stories and weeping with the details; my father sits in silence; I stare at old pictures and listen to sad music. I look at the painting in my daughter’s art folder – mountains, trees, a stream, and a black Poncho with a body and limbs added on in thick strokes of paint. This is her lament. 

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