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

family, kid health


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poshkat poshkat

my condolences on your loss. we have 2 cats. my husbands cat who will be 9 soon and ds's cat who is just 8 months old. i dread the day my husband's cat passes away. we have had him since he was 6 weeks old. he was our first baby and my husbands constant companion. the same goes to my sons cat. from the first night we brought him home he made it known that ds is his human and his best friend. he sleeps with him, he plays with him, he sits next to him when he is playing video games or watching tv. he plays with ds, he even tries to push the hot wheels when ds plays with them.

it was heartbreaking for me as an adult when my mother called me to tell me our childhood cat Pepsi died. i miss him everyday. he was the best cat ever!!

my husband always jokes that when his cat dies he will have him stuffed so he can always be around (ew). i sure hope hes not serious!!!

Melis... Melissa042807

It's true, pets are members of the family. I'm sure we'll have to face that talk someday. I'm not looking forward to it, but I think the best you can do is be honest, be gentle, and validate the child's sadness. 

Heck, this morning we met the sweetest Golden Retriever and I got a little choked up because she reminded me of my family's dog who passed away when I was ten! 

Eversnow Eversnow

I feel so sorry for you. I'm big on pets and will probably have to be sedated when my dog dies. I'm not ever looking forward to having to help my kids threw it. Hopefully my husband will be more help.

linzemae linzemae

What do you with a pet that passes at your house? I have no idea what to do if it happens to my dogs.

Cactu... CactusCuri

Linzemae: Bring them to your vet.  They can dispose of them or have them incinerated should you wish to keep the ashes.

So sorry for your loss.  It IS difficult to lose them, but they enrich your lives so much. 

It's good to teach children early on about cherishing each moment they have with the pet, and being grateful for the pet's love and presence in their lives.  It's important to focus on the fact that the animal had a long and happy life, and that sheltering it and caring for it was the right thing to do.  And it's essential to teach them that they are free to grieve; they shouldn't feel ashamed or let any idiots tell them "it was only a cat/dog".  I believe that encouraging them to speak of their feelings, crying when they need to, and then doing things to memorialize the pet (preserve the ashes in something nice with a picture; plant a tree in their memory; have the child draw a portrait, etc) can help them through.

Even as an adult, it's so difficult to go through.  If children can learn early on to cope with the emotional baggage, the rational side of things (the cycle of life and all that) will come later.  To each his own, but what matters most is being supportive of each other.  My husband and I felt so alone in our grief after we lost our little one because most people do not seem to assign the same emotional value to their pets as we do.

Eques... EquestrianMom

I'm so sorry for your loss! Because my son has grown up surrounded by animals, and some aer livestock (intended for feed, not pets) and some are pets, and some are pets (horses) who come to us temporarily for training but leave again, my son has always been facing the great circle of life, and freindship and loss. We have lost a few dogs, a couple barn cats (who are outside family) and chickens who we had before my son was born. Our biggest loss that was the most difficult for him to handle was a horse we were fostering for a rescue, he was a very aged (mid 30's) gaited gelding, and so very very sweet. He was a therapy horse, and safe enough my son rode him alone, and learned his barrels on him. Continued.....

Eques... EquestrianMom

 Amazing horse, and really touched all of our lives. He got sick, had heart complications, left our home and was euthanized by the rescue. The hard part? We thought he needed a dental check up and would return, so my son (and I) fully expected him back in a few days. He never got to say goodbye, which he found very hard. But, we had some great pictures of him and Tony, which we made into a scrapbook, and after greiving for a few weeks, my son was riding another horse, and said "mommy, roany is so happy when I ride him, Just like Tony was. I'm glad Tony got to be happy and do fun stuff with me before he died. I loved him, and I know he loved us too. I bet he's happier in heaven, and maybe someday we can take roany up to him and we can all ride together, we we get old and die too!" 

I thought that was a great deal of wisdom to come from such a young man :)

CPN322 CPN322

I started crying reading this. I'm so sorry for your loss :(

JCKit... JCKitten87

this defiantly made me cry. when i was 6/7 my cat died :( got hit by a car but my parents told me she ran away,so around 15 they told me the truth(becuz i didnt believe them and still asked yrs later about her), man i was mad, and felt seriously betrayed, back then i thought her "running away" ment she didnt like me. this is why once we have a pet my daughter will not be lied to when the most certain thing in life (death) happens

nonmember avatar Casey

I'm so sorry to hear about your cat. Our dog died last Friday and both my 5yo and me are taking it pretty hard. My 3 1/2 year old was more upset that her ladybug larvae didn't come in the mail that day so there's that. Our dog was almost 8 and survived a month of radiation in Nov/Dec, only to eventually die of a complication from one of the cancer drugs. He was our first kid and I anticipated having to go through the loss/grieving process when my kids were a little older but here it is...teachable sure but I wish it weren't.

We're Atheists so the finality of it all is hard for us to explain to our kids but we have been trying our best. Now the whole cremation part was a little trickier to explain (the internet recommends NEVER using the word BURN). We'll be picking up his ashes this week and bringing the kids to the park to spread them.

Good luck with your grieving and again, so sorry for your loss.

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