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We Lost Our Dog:: Teaching Children to Grieve

Yesterday was a tough day.

We said goodbye to the dog who has seen us through everything for the past eleven years. She was here before children filled our house with noise. She was here when cancer reared its ugly head in my life. She was here every day, loving us with everything she had.

And now she’s gone.

There’s an emptiness surrounding us that we can’t ignore.

She was a big goofy girl, like a bull in a china shop. She drove me bananas with her antics, but she won my heart easily. We were an odd pair; no matter where I was or what I was doing, she was right beside me. She was my shadow, and I’ll miss that more than words can express.

We loved her despite her wacky habits, just as she loved us without hesitation. She modeled unconditional love to our family, as if our happiness directly translated to hers. It was that example that made the decision to put her down extremely difficult. We loved her so much that we didn’t want her to leave us - not yet. {Arguably not ever.} But we recognized that she was suffering far too much to keep her here. It was evident that her body was failing her, despite our most fervent prayers.  

It felt awful. I wasn't ready to start a day without her barreling down the stairs.

Today is a hard day.

Truth be told, it happened yesterday and I’m still not ready. I look at those stairs and halfway expect to see her running down to meet me. I feel guilt, knowing that our decision is the reason she's not.

Her health had been declining for quite some time, but I hoped medicine might alleviate the issues. I longed for her to stay with us a bit longer. In our hearts, we all knew it wasn’t working. My kids were seeing it. I was seeing it. I think she felt it, too. All of our hearts were breaking, because death is hard. Pets are no exception.

I struggled spiritually, emotionally, and maternally. 

I allowed my kids into the struggle with me. 

They saw me ugly cry. They ugly cried, too.

I comforted them. They comforted me, too.

I didn’t try to take any of that away from them, because one day they will need to know how to grieve effectively. They’ll need to understand how to provide and accept comfort. They'll need to feel comfortable knowing that dear ones will eventually die, which is a really, really hard thing to grasp. 

I talked to my kids together and individually, in an age appropriate way to help them each understand euthanasia. I explained what happens, but how I explained it differed for each child. I think we often fail to provide enough information to our children for fear of scaring or hurting them, yet they will make sense of situations regardless of whether they have correct information. I can help frame potentially ambiguous or frightening situations so that they feel safe and supported, leaving the door open for further dialogue when they're ready. Grief follows no timeline. 

I desperately want to shield my children from pain, and grief certainly is part of that. I'd love for them to have a life devoid of any hurt, but since that is impossible, I want to provide a foundation for what effective coping looks and feels like. I chose to not hide my tears from them, but to allow them to grieve alongside me. Each child presented different reactions, which we embraced. One cried for the same reasons I cried. One cried, simply because we were crying too. One refrained from crying, but embraced us with bear hugs. None of these reactions was wrong. I helped show my children that grief is OK, regardless of how it looks or feels - so that they are not ashamed to experience their own feelings.

The most challenging part of this experience was the question of "what happens next..." At church, we've heard numerous sermons about human suffering and death, but far less is clearly articulated regarding animal death. We had a frank discussion about what happens when pets die. While this looks different for everyone, our discussion centered around God. It brought comfort to us to talk about the transition to heaven and the ultimate healing for our ailing pet.

Below are a few books that are helpful starting points:

I Will See you in Heaven (dog edition) (cat edition) 

Dog Heaven ; Cat Heaven 

The Legend of Rainbow Bridge

Badger's Parting Gifts

Saying Goodbye to Lulu

PawPrints in the Stars

Tomorrow will be easier.

Hopefully, each day will get easier as I adjust to life without our beloved dog... until I run across a stray lock of fur in a corner or glance at a shadow in the spot where she used to rest. I wouldn't trade it, though, because those little things will remind me to love with my whole heart, unconditionally, just as she did. In that way, we haven't really lost her at all.

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