Opinion

Talking to kids about death

After a friend's pet passes away, Sonia Mendes considers how she'd tackle the issue of death with her own kids.

1DeathOfPet-October2013-iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

Follow along as Ottawa-based sports reporter Ian Mendes writes about the joys of raising daughters Elissa and Lily with wife Sonia. This week, Sonia writes a post.

I’ll never forget the first time that Buster, our indoor cat, bolted out the front door.

It was last winter — a few short months after my husband and I surprised our two daughters with a kitten for Christmas. Our now nine-year-old daughter, Elissa, had what can only be described as a small panic attack when Buster made a run for it. Though I quickly ran after him and brought him safely back in — he’d only made it as far as the front steps and wasn’t sure what to do next — Elissa was in tears, and it took a few minutes for her to calm down. She was so scared at the prospect of losing her precious pet.

While I see Elissa’s personality as a beautiful blend of both Ian and myself, I can closely identify with her emotional streak. She loves both people and animals deeply, and tends to get very anxious at the prospect of them being taken away from her. It’s certainly not a bad thing; to me it demonstrates that she is nurturing and compassionate. But at the same time, it sometimes worries me to think of how she’ll react should Buster run out of his nine lives; the sensitive souls among us always take things a little bit harder.

We’ve never really had to help our kids deal with the loss of a family pet. We did have another cat before Buster — his predecessor was named McAllister. When Elissa was three and I was pregnant for the second time, McAllister developed a host of health problems. We brought him to the vet multiple times for a series of diagnostic tests, but they were unable to pinpoint the problem. He was having major digestive problems and his quality of life was rapidly deteriorating, so we ultimately made the sad decision to put him down.

Though I’m quite doubtful that she even remembers McAllister — as a busy preschooler she hardly paid him much notice — Elissa still loves looking at his old photos. “I sure miss McAllister,” she’ll wistfully tell me. “Don’t you wish he were still alive, Mom?” I tend to inwardly roll my eyes at these conversations, since there was certainly no love lost between Elissa and McAllister at the time.

But with Buster, it’s totally different. He arrived as a surprise delivery on Christmas Day, and he has most certainly left his paw print on the girls’ hearts. Unlike McAllister, he loves being around people and sits — waiting expectantly for the girls to come home from school — on the back of our living room chair, looking out the window. When they come in the door, he runs to greet them; I joke that he’s a dog trapped in a cat’s body.

Earlier this week, my close friend lost one of her family pets — their little dog, Rocky. He had been slowing down in recent years — as 14-year-old dogs tend to do — and one day he just passed away peacefully in her arms at home.

Although distraught, my friend lovingly wrapped her furry, loyal friend in a blanket and took him to the vet, where she decided to have Rocky cremated. While she was very emotional about the situation, she told me that she made sure that her two young girls — who are close friends of my own daughters — got off to their extracurricular activities that evening.

That impressed me, and I think this mom has done a beautiful job of handling what is inevitably a difficult situation. I only hope that one day I’ll be able to help my kids deal with our own pet’s death as well.

Read more: Talking to kids about a pet’s death >

While she’s sad — and allows her kids to see that and express their own emotions — she is also teaching them not to lament in their sadness, but to move on. It’s a hard lesson to learn, let alone teach to others — that you can love without holding back and then let go when the time comes; say goodbye but never forget.

 

If you are looking for more tips on talking to children about death, check out this video on how to talk to kids about death: