On Teaching Children to Grieve

Chester Copperpot

Tuesday was a challenging day. We had to euthanize our beloved cat, Chester Copperpot. Chester had been showing signs of illness at the end of last week, and progressively deteriorated rapidly over the long weekend. Ruthie brought it to my attention noting, “Chester is not behaving like my beloved Chester.” We got him into the vet on Tuesday, discovered he had significant bodily breakdowns probably due to Bobcat Fever (from a tick bite). The lab work reflected bloodborne pathogens, and he was in shock. Treatment would involve round the clock care (and IVs) and hospitalization, and still be iffy.

Miles and Ruth were with me as we drove in, and we talked through the various alternatives of what would happen depending upon what the vet found. I had noticed his shakes and tail changing color, so I was not optimistic, but they were holding out hope (Miles noted “I’m praying all the way in.”). I read an article once by a man named Joshua Russell, who explored how children losing a pet in childhood impact their feelings of death and grieving processes well into adulthood.

In my family of origin, we didn’t discuss death. Children were not involved in the process. Communication about loss, about how someone died, about memorials, about how to grieve – they just didn’t happen, and I understand that it was probably reflective of the grieving patterns of the time. We know more now, though.

Russell noted, “Children, in particular, have a distinct sense of existential fairness around whether or not an animal lived until an appropriate age,” and Miles’ chief vocal point was that “Chester was too young.” Indeed, this seemed true. He was only 4, and Chip lived to the ripe old age of 14 (Miss Puss is still kicking at 12). For farm cats, albeit fairly coddled ones, this is pretty amazing. It is an injustice to lose a cat who is only 4 years old (and what happened to the 9 lives?!?!).

Russell also noted that preparing children helps them accept it, so we discussed what would happen if we lost Chester when we were driving, and while we waited at the vet’s office (due to COVID regulations, they took him into the office and we waited in the van). They were running the lab work for about an hour and a half.

When we heard the diagnosis and made the decision, the vet, Dr. Jessica Stroup, was amazing and offered to let us pull around behind the building and be with Chester as he was passing. This was the best scenario I could have asked for. We sat in the camper bed of my truck, petting him as he was first put to sleep, and then euthanized.

As we loved on him, we talked around the group about when we first rescued Chester. Rebecca found him along route H after a vehicle ditched him as a little kitten. We talked about our favorite memories. I told them to try to be strong and positive and concentrate on the best parts of his life as we offered him comfort and peace during his passing.

The process was about 30 minutes long, but as the vet made the final checks, the children were discussing how we would bury him, how we would make a memorial marker, working to honor this beloved pet. I knew that the process would be hard, but was convinced it would be much more cathartic than had we just euthanized Chester in the vet’s office without the children understanding what was happening, or why. I am so grateful the vet recognized the import of this time and worked to make it possible.

How we frame death and grieving to children leaves an impact, and I recognize not every family would choose to respond as I chose to handle this loss. I respect that. Although it was saddening to face the last two mornings without an eager Chester in the driveway waiting to escort us down to his breakfast service, we know he’s running with Chip in Heaven. (Ruth asked concerned about how all the pets who go to Heaven – because that’s where I told her animals go – get enough food, but I said, “God’s got a handle on that”.)

It’s also prompted discussions about Ruth’s ideas of “good animals” and “bad animals”. It has provided me the opportunity to espouse my own personal ideologies of grace, acceptance, being wary of value-laden assessments of character over actions, etc. I do not feel “bad animals” don’t get into Heaven but have argued we need to consider the environment and responsibility of their pet owners in some of the animals’ behaviors/choices.

Losing a pet is hard, and so is talking about grieving with children but I hope they learn healthier processes and responses than I had. I fumbled with grief. I still struggle to process losses in general. I hope that I made the right decision for them (and I’m not seeking affirmation). I just needed to write through my thoughts and feelings.

 

 

Russell, J. (2017). ‘Everything has to die one day:’ Children’s explorations of the meanings of death in human-animal-nature relationships. Environmental Education Research, 23(1), 75-90.

 

Such a patient cat!

 

Ruth packing Chester on a family hike.