Friday, July 27, 2012

Children, pets, and death

Welcome to the July edition of Authentic Parenting Blog Carnival: Pets and children.

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Authentic Parenting Blog Carnival hosted by The Positive Parenting Connection and Authentic Parenting. This month our participants are sharing their thoughts and experiences with pets and children! Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

Mikko the boy and Mrs. Pim the cat

Mrs. Pim was our cat before Mikko was born. We adopted her at age two from the animal shelter, where she'd spent several months in a cage, growing gaunt and nervous from the barks in the room next door. She stole our hearts by poking her paw through the bars after we'd placed her back in her cage. After that plaintive signal, how could we not choose her?

We knew a little about her from the form that was filled out when her previous family released her to the shelter, but it was missing one vital piece of information: the genetic condition that would be the cause of her death.

At age 6, she went in for some extensive tooth care, and blood tests revealed her kidneys were failing, an inherited disorder to strike such a young cat. I became pregnant with Mikko soon thereafter, and we prepared for one life to enter as the other would exit.

newborn baby getting sniffed by cat

Only Mrs. Pim stuck around — for four more years — happy ones, I think and hope. Mikko and Mrs. Pim got to meet and know each other, and there was love: entirely one-sided love. Mikko thought Mrs. Pim was so stinking interesting that his second sign and his first spoken word were "kitty." Mrs. Pim was much warier of her admirer than he was of her (despite the fact that she had all her claws and many of her sharpest teeth), but she typically tolerated him.

cat and baby eyeing each other

cat and baby on mama's lap

For my part, I loved watching Mikko care for her, in all the senses of that word. He was eager with her brush, and he loved to help scatter her food into her feeding tray. He helped us scoop her litter box, which did not always make it easier, but I appreciated his awareness of her needs.

When Mrs. Pim declined, suddenly, as I was pregnant with our next baby, I tried driving to the vet alone through an unusual Thanksgiving snowstorm but had to turn back on the icy hills. Mrs. Pim had a reprieve of another few days with her family, and then we all went together to the vet to hear the news we knew was coming: She needed to be put to sleep. We had to let her go and end her suffering.

Mikko was three, and seemingly unaware of the tears streaming down my face, of my inability to speak without sobbing. The exam room had a Dutch door, so he pulled a chair over, climbed up, and blithely played peekaboo with a puppy in the waiting area.

cat just before her death — mrs. pim

The vet asked if we wanted to accompany him to the back to be with Mrs. Pim as the medicines took effect to stop her heart. I just couldn't do it, couldn't let my last memory be of the life leaving her body, and anyway, only one of us could have gone. It didn't seem right to take Mikko back with us. I felt I was failing Mrs. Pim in some way by chickening out, but she already seemed half-gone from the pain she was in. So Sam and I said our tearful goodbyes to Mrs. Pim on the exam table, her shivering body — as gaunt again as when we first met her — wrapped in an old and familiar towel from her carrier. We signed the forms, collected Mikko, and left.

Only once we were in the car did the questions start:
  • Why did we leave Mrs. Pim there?
  • What's wrong with her?
  • When is she coming home?

And so it began, a months-long, years-long, journey into explaining death to a preschooler. I'm glad that we could broach the subject with something as relatively benign as the death of a pet, and at an age where he wasn't overly attached to her, but it's still been an interesting and at times uncomfortable and challenging journey.

One thing I learned was not to use euphemisms, which can be hard since some are so ingrained culturally. See how I told you Mrs. Pim was "put to sleep"? Yeah, that didn't work with Mikko. Because, first of all, if she goes to sleep, then she can wake up again. Secondly, how horrifying for a bedtime-averse kid if sleep could potentially lead to death!

So we had to speak plainly about her death, and speak of it frequently. Weeks would go by, sometimes months, and then all of a sudden, apropos of nothing, he'd pipe up from the backseat of the car with some new question about Mrs. Pim.

I'd told him the vet gave her a special medicine to make her sleep so she'd die, since she was so sick. Apparently this was unclear. "Can we pick her up and take her home, Mama? I'll give her the medicine to make her feel better." Aw.

One day soon after her death, I was getting ready for the day and nearly tripped over her full water bowl. It gave me a start. I'd emptied it and put it away with her other things to donate. Why was it filled and in its usual place? I found myself foolishly looking around for her ghost.

"Mikko did it," Sam explained to me later. Ah, of course. He knew it was supposed to stay filled and didn't want her to be thirsty when she came home.

Later on, Mikko's attention leapt to other, often unanswerable questions: Do we all die? I'm not going to die; you're not going to die, are you? What happens to people when they die? From it all grew a fascination with mummies, and with which presidents on our money are bones now (answer: all of them), and whether dead people (or animals) can come back to life.

He's taken to answering people plainly when they ask whether he has a pet. "We did have a cat. Her name is Mrs. Pim. She's dead now."

Still, again and again, the questions would come, scattershot, always recentering on that one salient point: When will Mrs. Pim come home again?

He never did like or accept our answer of "Never, sweetheart."

Now she's been gone a year and a half, I've felt the longing grow for another cat. I feel sorry Alrik never got to meet Mrs. Pim, except in utero underneath her pawings as she settled on my lap, and I know he'd adore having a cat around to laugh at merrily (as he does at every animal). I feel certain his signing and talking vocabulary would soon expand to include "kitty" and "meow." And I'd love for Mikko to have a pet he's fully invested in, one he's seen become a part of his life. The pets who entered our family when I was his age were so special to me.

Sam's not there yet, but I drag the boys to the pet stores that have adoptable cats to meet. Mikko rolls his eyes at my fervor, but he's already helping me pick the cats who look most like our departed and telling me we should name the new one Mrs. Pim … or Mikko. (He's not very creative with names.)

The rational part of me, the practical side, says not having a pet when you have small children (or, really, anytime) is easier. That cats need attention I don't have to give at this point in our lives. That travel is more convenient without needing to arrange pet care. That my lap is taken already, and how. That having a pet, no matter what, is setting us up for a loss again sometime down the road — that it might be harder then, with our children older and more attached, to comfort them through another departure.

But the louder side is the one that combs for the cutest furry faces and imagines a purring bundle in my lap. I dream of my children's smiles as a kitty rubs her back under their hands, and I want to bring Mikko full circle, ahead to a new life entering our family and our hearts.

APBC - Positive Parenting Connection and Authentic ParentingVisit The Positive Parenting Connection and Authentic Parenting to find out how you can participate in the next Authentic Parenting Blog Carnival!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

  • A Pet's Role in the Home School — If a house isn't a home without a pet, how can you imagine homeschooling without one? Erica at ChildOrganics discusses the many benefits of home schooling with pets. .
  • Toddlers and Whiskers, Co-existing as One — Mama Duck at Quacks and Waddles explains how to introduce new pets to toddlers and babies
  • Children and the Death of a Pet — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama offers suggestions on how to help children work through the loss of a pet. She includes a variety of books to support both parents and children during this tender time.
  • 10 Reasons to Be a Foster Family for a Pet in Need — Christy from Adventures in Mommyhood: Mommy Outnumbered gives her top 10 reasons to consider fostering a pet until a forever home can be found.
  • Preparing Dogs for New Baby — Jennifer from Mother of the Pack gives advice to new parents for preparing their dog(s) for a baby
  • Children, Pets and Death — Lauren at Hobo Mama has walked with her son through the untimely death of their cat, a fascinating and troubling journey.
  • The Health Benefits of Having Pets — Laura from Authentic Parenting tells us exactly why having pets is beneficial to your child's health.
  • Romeo, My Healing Dog — Bianca at the Pierogie Mama writes about her loveable old dog, Romeo, who at one point she had to give away but a few years later he was placed back in her life when she least expected it.
  • 6 Tips to Help a Child That is Afraid of Dogs - Ariadne at Positive Parenting Connection is sharing helpful tips and using play to help children overcome a fear of dogs.


Anonymous said...

Awww, what a sweet story! (And I love Mikko's nursing muscles in the photo with striped leggings! So cute!)

We had a pet rabbit who died a year before Nicholas was born. Someday I hope to have another rabbit, but because it would chew on things left on the floor...!!! Meanwhile, we had gerbils when Nicholas was 3-6 years old. He came home from school to find one lying dead, and the other was very traumatized and died 4 days later. It was a big shock followed by a lot of sadness, but I think he took it better having already experienced <a href=">the death of a family friend and my explanation</a>. I was very touched by his compassion for his grieving gerbil; he spent a lot of time talking to and petting him, and he asked me to read the gerbil a specific story that he thought he'd find comforting. :-)

Erica @ ChildOrganics said...

What great photos, and a touching story. We've lost several pets that were dear to our heart. Explaining death to preschoolers is soooooo hard! We visited a civil war battle field last weekend. My ds,(3yo)kept asking where the dead people were? I guess he thought the soldier's bodies were still going to be there. Oh..the questions. Where are their bodies? Is their body still under the ground? Did they use a shovel? I was ill prepared for all of the questions.

Anonymous said...

We had a similar experience with our dog. We had to put her down because she had an aggression that couldn't be tamed no matter how much we tried (which the vet said was likely a brain anomaly based on her other genetic disorder). Peanut was 2 and change then. We didn't take her to the vet with us, but she did realize that she was gone. I was convinced that we wouldn't have another dog for years, but quickly missed having one in our home. When we got our new dog, Curie, Peanut started saying that the puppy was in the house and the dog was in the backyard. It broke my heart because our old dog spent so much time outside because I was afraid of her biting Peanut. She was obviously younger than Mikko so she didn't have as much of a recollection of the dog, but she still remembered that. She can tell me who she was when we see her in pictures and she often tells me she was a mean dog (which isn't what I wanted her to remember, but the grandmas seem to need to justify her being gone with that).

I will say though that I'm happy we got a new dog. I love that the girls have their pets. They love them so much and they learn so much from them. It's sad to be set up to lose another loved one, but that shouldn't keep you from living.

stoneageparent said...

Thanks for sharing the beautiful story of love, the budding relationship between your child and pet, and the very sad demise of your cat's life. It is hard for any of us to come to terms with a pet's death in the family, but for a small child it must be so much harder.

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