Learning and Teaching About the Loss of a Pet

By Bill Henk – They say that writing can be therapeutic.  Today I hope they’re right.

They say that a cat has nine lives.  They’re wrong.  They have one.

Where am I going with this?   Well, last night one of our beloved Maine Coon cats, Spock, passed away.  I found him cuddled in our closet in one of his many favorite places to nap.  He looked very peaceful, too peaceful.  When the nudge I gave him got no response, my heart just sank.

They also say that bloggers should write about what they know, experience, care about, and feel, so that’s what I’m going to do.  Too often I find myself defending my choice of topics as being educational in nature.  I believe that learning and teaching about how to handle the loss of a beloved pet qualifies.  If not, just this once, I don’t care.

Now my wife and I are faced with the prospect of breaking the sad news to our little daughter.  And we’re both looking for guidance.  We’ve never done this before, and we take the deaths of our pets so hard ourselves that being a source of strength for our little girl won’t come easily.  But somehow we will.

The twist on this post is that I’m supposed to provide answers in what I write, but all I’ve got right now are questions.  The deed will be done by the time this story goes live, and I know our daughter will survive the experience, but any advice from parents about moving forward with her mourning will be welcome.

Pet Lovers Will Understand

As I write what amounts to a tribute to a “mere” cat,  I am teary-eyed and numb.  I’m still somewhat stunned although the harsh reality has indeed sunk in.  Although Spock  was older and I knew he wouldn’t last forever, I didn’t see this coming — at least not yet.

Not surprisingly to pet lovers, I simply feel empty.  Spock’s death has taken me right back to 2005 when my amazing six-year old female golden retriever and best buddy, Delaney, walked into my office and dropped dead for no apparent reason.  I’ve never fully recovered from that loss, because I didn’t have time to grieve.  That process got put squarely on the back burner, because my daughter was a newborn, and she had to be my focus.

I felt almost the  same emptiness when our cute little Persian cat, Pudge, passed away on the very day we moved our belongings from Illinois to Milwaukee eight years ago — once again for no apparent reason.  But we didn’t have to explain either of those deaths to our daughter.

For what it’s worth, I understand completely that some readers will think the feelings I express here are over the top.  That’s definitely their prerogative.  But believe me, pet lovers will get it, and cat lovers will REALLY get it.

For those of us smitten by our pets, there is something almost indescribable about the emotional bonds of understanding we form with them.  Peering deeply into one another’s eyes, as I often did with Spock, Delaney, and Pudge, literally connected our souls — something I personally believe all God’s living creatures possess.

Dealing With the Grief

Now here I go again with Spock.  I’m not the least bit better at coping with grief, although I handled my discovery of his lifeless body, still a little warm and both rigid and limp, far more calmly than I would have ever imagined.  Shock trumped my emotions and made me curiously rational.  I broke the news to my poor wife, Lisa, knowing that she’d be beside herself, and she was, yet somehow I kept it together.

A few moments later, with Lisa’s permission, I picked up our beautiful cat and carried him downstairs to a confined place where our nutty but lovable lab, Lilly, and Spock’s younger running mate, Bones, our other Maine Coon cat, would not see or bother his body.

But they definitely knew something was up.  Pets always know.  They read our emotions.

Bones spent much of this morning scratching on closed closet doors hoping his best friend would be found within.  He’s smelling everywhere Spock used to sleep.  His meows sound more like cries — shrill and desperate, and he’s unusually clingy.  He wants reassurances, and petting him frequently seems to be helping.  As for Lilly, she’s just pouting and moping.  They all got along famously, and Spock’s pals loved the cleanings he used to give them.  It’s not surprising that they miss him already.

For the record, I even held it together pretty much when my wife and I  dropped Spock’s body off at the veterinary clinic this morning and said goodbye.  We both drove there, my wife going directly with him in the back of her vehicle in a big box (because he was a VERY BIG cat).  In turn, I dropped our unsuspecting daughter off at school first, then joined my wife at the clinic.

It was somehow fitting that the vet who had taken care of Spock, Dr. Taylor, was there to receive him.  He helped us pay our last respects, and understandably distraught, we left the office.

My wife and I hugged in the parking lot for a minute and exchanged some heartfelt words of consolation, then both drove off on our separate ways, knowing exactly how the other felt.

And that’s when I lost it.  Utterly.  Alone for the first time, Spock’s passing hit me full force, and sadness overwhelmed me.  I wept; I actually wailed.

Saved By a Memory

Thankfully, not long afterwards I had this wonderful memory of how much the people who worked in that clinic admired our gorgeous cat, too.   He was quite the physical specimen — a real stud of a feline.   With his thick brown coat and lion-like face, he was truly impressive.  When we’d bring him out for guests to see at our home, they were as astounded  as I was the first time I laid eyes on him.  In fact, we’d have to caution any service folks who worked in our house about him.  That’s because his appearance was so intimidating they’d be legitimately scared if he emerged without warning.  Just think mini-mountain lion.

Although Spock had a regal bearing about him, he wasn’t particularly bold or  courageous.  Mostly he was just plain sweet.  He definitely craved attention and human contact, and would stick around to receive it as long as it was offered.

Anyway, as far as the clinic goes, one time my wife had to wait an excessively long time for him to be discharged after a routine check-up and grooming.  She couldn’t understand what was taking so terribly long and her irritation mounted.   When they finally brought Spock out, the staff sheepishly admitted that the delay occurred because they all wanted to have their photo taken with him!  He was THAT unique.

Just How Special?

As for me, Spock was simply my special boy, and we spent countless hours together — through good times and bad.  I can still feel the gentle and soothing sensation of stroking his big, furry, soft body, and that’s what I want to, and will,  remember.  Nothing has ever consoled me more quickly or completely.

Spock belonged to my wife when I first met her, and I eventually became his other significant human.  He followed me around a lot, and why not?  I always stopped to caress him.  We both enjoyed those calm, gentle, quiet  moments.

Half a day removed from his demise, I still expect to see and hear him around every corner, and could swear that I do.  From past experience, I know these mind tricks will persist for some time, and the void of his absence will sadden me a little with each occurrence.

So how special was he?  Now you’ve got to understand that I’ve been a dedicated “dog man” my whole life.  Spock made me a “cat guy,” too; he turned me.  Hopefully, I’m not a weird cat guy — just one who got to experience firsthand how remarkably a cat can add to the quality of one’s life.

Did I mention how he would say something that sounded suspiciously like “Hello” when he entered a room?  I am not making this up; I have witnesses.  Did I mention how a cat of his massive size could squirrel himself away in places that made him almost impossible to find?  Did I mention that he remained playful to the end?  And, of all things, he always wanted his eyeballs and armpits massaged.  No point trying to figure it out.  He was a cat after all.

The big lug would also sleep on the recliner in my office for hours on end while I worked.  It’s the spot in my house where I most like to read.  Many times I should have moved him so I could stay on task, but I rarely had the heart.  Instead I’d stay working on my computer or go somewhere else to read.  Right now I’d give almost anything not to be able to sit in that recliner.

All of this begs the real question at hand, “how do you help your child deal with the same sadness that is getting the best of you?”  

For the Love of Animals

So you know, I come to this whole pet obsession naturally.  I learned it from my father who was simply great with animals.  He loved them and they knew it.  Even unfamiliar, ill-behaved critters responded to him like he was some sort of a beastmaster.

Whether my dad set out to model the love of creatures for me or not, it had that effect, and it’s been indelible.  It’s one of the greatest gifts he ever gave me, and I hope we transmit it to our daughter.  Truth be told, I fancy myself to be something of a beast master, too — an inheritance I guess.  In any case, I still remember how any time one of our pets died, my dad would cry so much that he’d have to wear sunglasses for several days.  I could use a pair right now myself.

How intense is my fondness for pets?  Keep in mind that I’m the same guy who dedicated his doctoral dissertation to the parakeet who sat on his shoulder the whole time he wrote it.  I’m also the guy who spent more than $300 on vet care he couldn’t afford trying to keep the little guy alive even though he was at the end of a typical lifespan.  Please don’t tell anyone, but I’ve even cried over the loss of fish when I had an aquarium.

Most of all, my heart goes out to Lisa.  Her love for Spock  has always been profound.  The cat, whose big ears caused her to name him after the famous Vulcan first officer on Star Trek, was her friend through thick and thin, too.

Talking about him in the past tense will be difficult for both of us, but especially for her, because their history is longer.  There is something special about raising a pup or a kitten, just as she raised Spock, and so they will always share that extraordinary attachment.

Now What?

Having said all this brings me full circle to the same question, how are we going to convey to our daughter that our magnificent cat is gone?   I’ll do some Googling, because I know there are websites out there that will provide advice.  But mostly I plan to follow my instincts.

I’m going to tell Audrey that Spock has been called to Heaven (and if that offends anyone, I’m sorry).  I want her to envision him alive and joyful and playing with Delaney and Pudge.  Rightly or wrongly, I personally believe that no place could be Heaven if we humans don’t get reunited with our beloved pets there in the afterlife.  They are God’s creations, too, so I can’t help but think that they’d be more than welcome.

I’m also going to tell my daughter to imagine Spock being held in Jesus’s arms — safe, secure, and happy.  That image helped me immeasurably when my golden retriever passed away.  It is helping me now as well.

And I’ll tell her about my dad and his love of animals, how he passed it on to me, and how I hope she comes to feel the same way.

Most of all, I’m going to tell her to focus on the many marvelous memories we have of our wonderful cat, and I’ll try hard to heed my own advice.

For what it’s worth, I think Audrey will be fine, because Spock was more our cat than hers.  Bones is HER special boy.  His passing would have been much more traumatic.  In any event, she knows what death means, but does not really understand it.  She’ll take her cues from the way we seem to be handling it emotionally.

So Long

Maybe cats only do have one life, but if loving and being loved is the measure of a life well lived, then Spock made the absolute most of his time here on Earth.

Goodbye dear friend.

Spock (1998  – 2012)  In our hearts and minds forever.

Thank you for enriching our lives immeasurably.

——————–

Special Notes:  I’d like to thank our friends, Alice Bluhm and her husband, Bill, for first suggesting the consoling image of a deceased pet in Jesus’s arms, and for directing us a few years ago to a beautiful poem of reassurance called “The Rainbow Bridge.”   I encourage you to read it now, but almost certainly when a beloved animal friend has passed.  I’d also like to thank Alice for the wonderful photos she’s taken of our pets over the years.

And yes, writing this post did help, although my heart is still aching.  Most importantly, we did break the news to Audrey much like I described, and so far she seems to be taking it well.  Time will tell, but I’m hopeful.  Today when I asked her if she missed Spock, her answer was, “Yes, daddy, but don’t worry.  He’s happy in Heaven with your daddy.”  Priceless.

17 Responses to “Learning and Teaching About the Loss of a Pet”


  1. 1 scott January 19, 2012 at 11:21 am

    Ouch! Good luck. I don’t think there’s one set way to handle it. Me, I told my kids from the time they were old enough to ask about such things: everything that’s alive will one day die. “Even you, daddy?” Yes, even me.

    It may not be exactly the right message for young kids, but I’m reminded of Steve Jobs’ commencement speech to Stanford in 2005. He said death was the single best invention of life. It clears away the old and makes way for the new. You start out being “the new,” then later you’re the old and it’s time to go.

    Good luck.

    Like

    • 2 billhenk January 19, 2012 at 11:39 am

      I told our daughter the same thing, Scott, and she came back with “Even me, Daddy?” I answered honestly and it upset her. The thought of not living herself is terrifying. She can apparently handle it when it comes to other living things, though.

      As for Steve Jobs, it would be great if he could tell us how his new invention is going! 😉

      Like

  2. 3 Ann B. January 19, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Aw Bill, I am so sorry. Losing a special member of your family is the toughest thing to go through. It sounds like Audrey is handling it well..Dad on the other hand.. 🙂
    The “Rainbow Bridge” is a wonderful poem..I have it framed 🙂 There is a book by Mr. Rogers, written especially for children, “When a Pet Dies”. I’ve heard it is wonderful. It might help too (for closure) to have a small memorial service for Spock. I don’t know if you had him cremated or not, but still, you could ask Audrey if she would like to say a special prayer, light a candle even plant a special plant in your yard in memory of Spock.
    Sending our deepest sympathies to you and your family..we know how much it hurts.

    Like

    • 4 billhenk January 19, 2012 at 1:52 pm

      Thanks for your kind expression of sympathy, Ann.

      Audrey is definitely handling the loss better than her daddy.

      I’ve heard about the Mr. Rogers book, but never read it. I’ll definitely check it out now. I really love the idea of a memorial service and having Audrey say a prayer and light a candle. We’ll do that when his ashes are returned to us, presumably soon.

      Like

  3. 5 Donna January 19, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    Well, I’m sitting here with tears running down my cheeks with absolutely no words of sisterly advice at all. I think you handled telling Audrey in the perfect way and I’ll bet if you send a special prayer to Daddy, he’ll keep an eye on Spock, too. Love you all.

    Like

  4. 7 Mary Pat FitzGibbons January 20, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    Wow! Heart felt indeed. Our animals are part of our family. Of course you would be sadder than sad. Sometimes I think that it is easier to grieve for our pets, rather than the other loses in our lives. They love us unconditionally. Almost everybody else has some condition. It is ok, just life and the state of most of our spiritual development at this time on earth.

    I am glad that you wrote this post. It is good for you and for all of us humans who live with pets. It reminds us of living on planet earth. Perhaps we will appreciate what we have, when we have it in our lives (not after)

    Sounds like you are a great “Dad” for both your daughter and your pets. You will help them all get through this very sad time.

    Many Blessings to you and your whole family. Mary Pat

    Like

  5. 8 billhenk January 20, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    Unconditional love is what sets our pets apart, Mary Pat. It sounds like a cliche but they really do become members of our families. I hope you’re right about me doing a good job with my daughter and my pets. Sometimes I’m not as patient as I should be, but I definitely try. Thanks for your blessings. I have the same hope for you and your family.

    Like

  6. 9 Cathy Kuchan Krall January 21, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    Dear Henk Family,

    My Dad, Tony Kuchan, shared your blog with our family. I know we all responded similarly to your beautiful tribute to your cat and two other pets – with sadness, and understanding, and an appreciation for the joy they brought to you.

    No real words of wisdom for how to speak to a child. All I did when my daughter lost her bunny was to write it all down and tell her that she could read my thoughts when she was ready. She was older though, 14 at the time, and very angry for a while. But, with time, she was absolutely fine.

    Cathy Krall

    Like

  7. 10 billhenk January 21, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    I think kids can be stronger and more resilient than we might imagine sometimes, Kathy. At any rate, writing down the situation when a pet dies for later reading by a child makes good sense. My daughter knows that I blogged about Spock. When the post was done, I showed her the pictures and shared with her orally what I wrote in general terms. I’m sure that’s why she made the comment about Spock and my dad being together in Heaven a few days later. For that matter, when she’s older, she’ll be able to read that post by herself, and I hope she does. In fact, I look at my posts as an archive of my thinking that she might want to read to learn more about her old dad — 53 years her senior — after I’ve passed away myself.

    Glad you found value in my post, and thanks for writing. And by the way, knowing your dad has been a genuine pleasure and privilege for me.

    Bill

    Like

  8. 11 Kathy Mago January 23, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    Being Lisa’s mother, Audrey’;s grandma, and your mother-in-law Bill, I knew Spock a long long time ago. He was Lisa’s pride and joy and she would literally haul him breathlessly (because he was so heavy for her) everywhere to show people his uniqeness, beauty, size, and intelligence. She was so proud of him and loved him so much. I, too, knew about the Rainbow Bridge from my veterinarian and staff that firmly believe in the theory.
    I have many cats and dogs that will be waiting for me across that bridge and I most certainly look forward to the day when I can see them. Meanwhile the tears of joy for Spock not suffering and being there, plus my own for his passing. His beauty inside and outside, his softness and expressive eyes I will miss. God Bless all those whose hearts he touched.

    Like

    • 12 billhenk January 23, 2012 at 11:35 pm

      You certainly go way back with Spock, Kathy. I would love to have seen him as a kitten. Lisa did indeed take great pride in him, and just loved showing him to visitors and so did I. She’d go to whatever lengths necessary to find him, which was almost always a challenge because he had especially good hiding places when he sensed strangers were around. Then there was the matter of extricating him for transport, commented on how peacefully he passed. I should have said in my post that I regarded it as a gift, because watching a pet suffer is pure agony. I have a list etched deeply into my brain of all the pets who will await me when I cross that Rainbow Bridge. Each and every one of them certainly touched my heart.

      Like

  9. 13 Chris Rotondi January 23, 2012 at 10:40 pm

    Dear Bill,

    As another of Tony Kuchan’s daughters, I want to thank you for sharing your beautifully written, heartfelt eulogy to Spock, the wonderful pet that you and your family loved so dearly. Our hearts ache for all of you. We know how you are feeling because we just lost our beloved cat, Oreo, on September 6th after just a week of illness. She was almost 18, and had been such a special, integral part of our lives for so long.

    If this helps, Bill, we planned a memorial for Oreo and I put a posterboard together with lots of pictures, stickers, etc., and decorated a big cookie with her name, a rainbow, etc. We went outside where I read a poem, then we all wrote something on a a red, heart shaped balloon which we released into the sky. I’ll never forget how that balloon looked as it floated up and out of sight. It felt like a tangible symbol of our desire to send our love to Oreo in heaven. And, just as your father taught you such love and empathy for animals, you and Lisa have obviously given your daughter the same gift. It sounds like you have handled this in just the right way.

    Wishing you blessings and comfort,
    Chris and Ian Rotondi

    Like

    • 14 billhenk January 23, 2012 at 11:24 pm

      Chris–

      Your dad mentioned Oreo’s passing after I shared how troubled I was by the loss of Spock. He told me how much you and Ian loved Oreo, and how he was indeed an integral member of your family. He also told me that he felt your pain. Having a pet for nearly 18 years makes for for an incredibly deep friendship. Your memorial to Oreo sounds so touching. Lisa and I still plan to do something along those lines. We haven’t held off on Audrey’s behalf; it’s more a matter of us being ready for it. In any case, I love the imagery and symbolism of the balloon, and will be sure to include that aspect in whatever way we choose to celebrate Spock’s life. Thanks so very much for sharing your thoughts.

      Bill

      Like

  10. 15 Jerry Becker January 24, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    Bill – I can relate completely as we have had the same experience when we lost our Anja, a miniature schnauzer. Many vivid memories remain. Jerry Becker

    Like


  1. 1 Criticize (Educational) Things You Don’t Know About — NOT! « The Marquette Educator Trackback on January 26, 2012 at 7:30 am

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