EDITOR’S NOTE: If you or someone you know needs help coping with a pet’s death, we suggest visiting the Grief Support Center at RainbowsBridge.com.
My cat is dead.
It’s no big deal. Just a shelter cat some woman I didn’t know bought for a 5-year-old I didn’t know. I’m married to that woman now, and that 5-year-old now is in high school, and my stepson.
The cat, Xander, came before my marriage. Xander was there before any of my three children were born. He had moved across the country a couple of times. He dropped poop in inconvenient places, and despite living in homes with solid flooring surfaces, he always found a few strips of carpet to drop a hairball. Xander was way too patient with my kids. His gentle demeanor created some very unrealistic expectations within my children regarding how the average cat responds to being violently accosted.
When we received Xander’s terminal diagnosis, I was a stoic: “Well, we gotta put ’em down. It’s the right thing.” I felt good about our decision. The vet came to our home to usher our warrior feline to the great hunting fields in the sky.
Then, when she announced Xander was dead, I became overwhelmed with grief.
Pet’s death comes in different forms
My wife had insisted on including the children during Xander’s euthanizing. I didn’t push back, but I wasn’t sure if it was the right decision. Perhaps I didn’t want to face the inevitably difficult “afterlife” questions that would follow. Your religious beliefs aside, no one knows exactly what happens after death, and I wanted to keep that from my children for as long as possible.
But it’s common for my wife to have more faith in my children than I do. I’m not proud of that. In many ways, it brings a healthy balance to our relationship. And, in moments like this, I marvel at her wisdom.
So the entire family gathered for that moment Xander fell asleep, and then slowly passed. My 3-year-old was confused. She was sure the vet was there to make Xander better. Her pleas for Xander to wake up sent me fleeing to another room.
That emotional response to our pet’s death from my youngest daughter made the whole thing more painful for me. On the other hand, the complete lack of emotions from my other two kids made me wonder if I’m raising future serial killers who may star in their own Netflix documentary.
My son, who is 5, was cuddly, quiet, and deeply introspective, but mostly seemed unphased by watching our cat die. My daughter, at 7 going on 30, seemed to delight in not having any emotions at all. She kept checking to see if I was crying and behaved as if she was winning the “I’m not crying” competition. When we had her play the flute after we lowered Xander’s lifeless body into his backyard grave, she behaved as if it was a fun curiosity, not a sad ceremony. As Hurricane Ian’s first angry clouds swirled above (it had been a stressful week), my son solemnly tossed flowers over Xander’s body. He did so respectfully, but my daughter was laughing and joking, definitely not taking it seriously.
Hard lessons at a young age
I wanted to get mad. I wanted to force them to feel what I felt. For some reason, I felt it was my duty to make them conform to my idea of what mourning should look like, but I possessed just enough wisdom to let it go.
It took a couple of days, but eventually, my eldest daughter broke down. She confessed she was sad she hadn’t spent more time with Xander before he died. That’s when she began making really sweet drawings and artwork devoted to the cat. She had found her feelings, and she had found a way to mourn.
As parents, sometimes we feel pressure to act. We feel we need to be correcting, teaching, or guiding. But parenting, as in life, is all about balance. There’s a time to push our kids, and a time to let them alone. There’s a time to be a strong hand of guidance, but sometimes distance and time is the answer. None of us will get it right all the time, but it’s important we remember to work toward balance. It’s crucial we never forget our children are people, and people are wildly complicated. Kids are just tiny humans with all the big feelings you and I feel, and they are just learning how to deal with it. If we’re honest, how great are us adults with our feelings?
Ultimately, having the children be a part of Xander’s death was the right decision for us. The children fully understand he is gone and never coming back. They each dealt with his passing in their own way, and it feels good not deceiving them along the way. No story about a farm. No mysterious disappearance. They faced it like champs, and they matured a little along the way. What more can we ask of our kids?
Me? Well, I’m grumpy about being the saddest of the lot. I should be writing about something else, but this is all I can think about. I’m grateful for the opportunity to see my children grow and continue to impress me, but it did come at a high cost – now they want more pets.
I shall end with a final thought I feel Xander, the mighty feline warrior, killer of lizards, slayer of frogs, would appreciate: Cats rule and dogs drool.
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