My Cat's Death Is Helping My Kid Grow Up

A kid and her pet
My kid and another of our pets: best friends.
Today was the day when all the benefits of living with pets -- learning empathy, staving off allergies, having a playmate -- were set aside. When the alarm went off this morning and I began readying the 6-year-old for school, my husband walked down the stairs. And there she lay: our oldest cat, our first pet, cold and stiff. Sometime during the night, our elderly kitty had died

And now I'm left to pick up the pieces of my daughter's broken heart. Truth be told, it's topped the list of my biggest fears ever since we brought our daughter home to grow up in a house with pets.


Simple math told me that this would happen. All our pets are older than our daughter, and I knew one day we would have to say goodbye to them (to be honest, I always thought our dog would go first).

And I dreaded it in a way that's very different from the fear I have over people dying. Because our pets are our constant companions. Almost every day of her life, my daughter has woken up to the dog and cat. Almost every evening, she's bid them goodbye. At 6, they are more real to her in many ways than her great-grandmother, whose death when my daughter was 2 was more confusing to her than it was sad.

Some people are reading this and already rolling their eyes. Those people, the non-pet people, don't get it. Because as one of my friends so astutely said on Facebook this morning, families aren't just made of humans.

And there it is: the benefit to raising our kids with pets that we'd rather not have to face, but is good for them after all. When your pet dies, it's hard and sad, but it's a teachable moment for your kids. Because not all of their relatives are going to die when they're 2 years old and utterly confused by it; they need to learn about death sometime.

While she sat, crying her eyes out in my arms this morning, I told my daughter that Madeline was old, that cats aren't expected to live as long as people, and that because she'd died in her sleep, she wasn't in pain. I told her that this happens in life, but what's important is that she loved Madeline, and Madeline loved her.

That's what we want to teach our kids, right? That love and kindness matter more than anything else in this world? More than riches? And that our time on this planet is measured not in length but in what we offered to those we loved?

With little warning that Madeline was going to die this soon (she was aging and had a change in temperament recently, but it was for the better), I probably fumbled it a bit this morning. But I didn't lie. I didn't sugarcoat. And I didn't belittle her feelings (I've promised her a full "funeral" tonight, and she'll be making flowers because picking fresh ones in January in upstate NY is not an option).

It wasn't a lesson I wanted to impart. But today, on her first day back to school after a long winter break, my daughter is learning more about the facts of life than she is reading, writing, and arithmetic. She learned before breakfast that we can't hold onto the ones we love forever.

It seems even in death, Madeline is helping my daughter grow up. And that's helping me handle my grief.

How you will talk to your kids about saying goodbye to their pets when the time comes?


Image by Jeanne Sager

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