Having the (Other) Talk: Grieving the Loss of the Family Pet

In honor of pets everywhere who have brought such a pure form of love into our homes.

My husband came home a complete mess; “The vet says he has four weeks left to live.” This was not the news I was expecting to hear about our 11-year-old black Labrador. We scheduled an appointment for a minor limp, only to find out an aggressive form of cancer was attacking his bones.

My husband bought Tex as a droopy-eyed puppy, well before we were married, and the big lug was a fixture in our home. Marriage, moves, career changes, children . . . Tex was by our side through it all. We were simultaneously wrecked and staring down the business-end of a major conversation with our young kids, ages five and three.  

I have always thought of myself as the “let’s talk about it” mom. Body parts, sex, war, orphans in other countries . . . I have had these tough talks and answered questions without breaking a sweat. (Have I laughed a little through the sex stuff? Absolutely.) There is some level of comfort in knowing my children will get the real deal from me, however painful or awkward the topic. The more I am honest with them now, the less lost they might feel in this big, confusing world as elementary school gives way to graduation, careers, and children of their own. Death, however, was not a topic I was eager to discuss. How could I support my children while I myself needed to grieve?

I asked the kids to pause the TV show they were watching as I sat down next to them. My husband sat at the end of the couch with his head in his hands. “Guys, I need to talk to you. There is something inside of Tex making him sick.” My three-year-old daughter’s eyes widened with a look of panic. “Is it the chocolate chip waffle I gave him this morning?” I stifled a giggle while my husband choked back a sob. I explained that it wasn’t the waffle or anything either of them had done. Tex was an old dog. Old dogs get sick and die. My son’s eyebrows furrowed as the wheels turned. “So . . . do people die when they’re old, too?” There might be plenty of ways to beat around that bush, but this was a teachable moment. “Yeah, buddy, they do. But they make lots of special memories before that happens.” Both kids stared at the frozen TV screen, so I continued. “Tex is sick, so he will die soon. That means he won’t live here anymore. He won’t come back.”

dogMy daughter immediately burst into tears and crawled into my lap. As she sobbed on my shoulder, her brother remained deep in thought. I rocked my little animal-lover for what felt like an eternity, her cries ripping my heart to shreds. “I’m sad, too, kid.” And my own tears flowed. We sat like this for about 10 minutes, mother and daughter crying. Just as quickly as the tears came, they subsided, and the kids asked to watch their TV show. Both seemed more relaxed, even with their newly acquired information. I felt a sense of relief, knowing I needed to shed those tears and that it hadn’t scared the kids to see their parents in pain.

That initial talk, strangely, gave me hope. Let’s be clear, though. Death sucks. It’s confusing. One minute we find our arms clinging to one another for fear that our grief will whisk us away into a gray oblivion. Other times there’s nothing to do but laugh at the hilarious spin children can put on this very big fact of life. (I later heard my daughter singing, “Die, die, die! You will die! You will die!” to the tune of the Darth Vader music as she lovingly stroked the Labrador’s head. I’d say this is nothing short of bizarre and hilarious and demands a cackle or two.) What are we supposed to do with all of these emotions that bubble up when we encounter death? Even while asking painful questions, my little ones, who are still so new to this life and its hard truths, allowed me to cry alongside them. They gifted me the ability to both work through some of my own feelings and serve as their protector and guide. It felt oddly therapeutic.

As the days go on and we watch our faithful Labrador inch closer to his rainbow bridge, I know there are more tears in store. But I am learning to trust my instincts as a mom and put a little faith in my children as we dive deeper into the (other) talk.

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Ashley is from Hurst, and though she’s flown the nest a few times now, she always seems to boomerang right back to her hometown. Her latest stint took her family to Chicago for the last four years. While Ashley, her husband of almost 16 years, her son and daughter loved life as honorary Midwesterners, Texas called, and it was time to answer. Though her children are in upper elementary school, Ashley found her groove as a stay-at-home mom and is not eager to give up the title quite yet. You can find her putting in the miles all over town with her “doggy clients” as a Rover walker and caregiver. (Dogs talk back less than children.) Ashley is often the loudest mom at the ball fields but comes in peace with the best snacks. She recharges with a run around Hurst, a ride on that stationary bike everyone’s talking about, or on a patio with a margarita and her very funny husband. Ashley has written for local mom groups, church and is a returning writer for Fort Worth Moms. Her husband hopes she will stick to more pieces on motherhood and less on disappointing stays at grimy hotels.


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