When a beloved family pet passes away, how do we help children face the reality of death?
We found out over the phone, while on vacation.
The housesitter called us to tell us that he was at the animal hospital back home with our cat, Smokey. And then he put the vet on the line. We heard about age-related kidney disease, complete renal failure. We learned that medication and intravenous fluids might help keep him alive another month—or maybe just another week.
It was hard to take it all in: this was Smokey, whom we had adopted just three years ago, and who was apparently much older than any of us had imagined. Sadly, we gave the okay to put him to sleep.
Our children, Jonah and Maia, who are nine and five, stood listening. “It’s your first death,” Jonah told Maia, as though admitting her to an important club. He sometimes liked to boast to her that he knew actual people who had died, while she didn’t. It was a little boy’s form of machismo, an attempt to manipulate sorrow into glory.
And he was right: it really was her first death. Our son had lost his grandfather at age three, an event that marked him deeply, giving him a pronounced interest in mortality and the evanescence life. But our daughter had never shown such an interest—till now.
After the phone call we gathered in a circle and held hands, in the slightly self-conscious manner of people trying to grapple with a loss. Smokey had only lived with us for three years, and had had a number of annoying traits, such as nipping when you petted him too hard. But he had inserted himself into our family in his insistent way, so that when talking with the kids, my husband referred to him as “your furry brother.”
“What’s going to happen to him?” asked Maia.
“He’s going to be with God,” said Jonah.
We offered some memories: the way he liked to sleep on Maia’s bed when she did not want him to; the way he followed us down the block to the park like a dog; the dead lizards and birds he would deposit at our front door. But describing those moments did not mean that he was actually there with us, and that night, Maia tossed and turned in her bed, unable to get rid of her grief—just as I found myself unable to do more than hold her and say the usual clichés: we loved him; he had a good life; we would always remember him.
Yes, now she was part of the club.
The next morning we sat together at breakfast, talking about the last few days of our vacation and how good it would be to go home. “What are you looking forward to doing when you get back?” I asked the kids.
“Seeing Smokey—oops,” they said, with a sort of mischievousness, wanting to bring up the strange and novel fact that they wouldn’t be seeing him ever again. And yet no matter how much we talked about it over the next few days, Smokey’s absence did not really hit them until we walked through the door of the house and he was not there. “I miss Smokey!” Maia cried. I felt a chill go through me. The kids looked bereft.
“We should have a memorial for him,” I said.
The children perked up instantly. We didn’t have Smokey’s ashes—we hadn’t asked for them back—but the kids insisted on collecting a shoebox full of other items connected to him, things he might conceivably need in a cat afterlife. The tone became positively Egyptian.
I found some of his leftover fur on the kitchen floor and tossed it in; Maia contributed a plastic cat figurine from her toy chest; Jonah got a handful of kibble from the bag that still sat atop the refrigerator; and our nine year-old neighbor, Lucy, threw in a T-shirt that had a cat image printed on it. We took the shoebox out to the backyard, dug a hole by the fence at the back and put the items in. Each child wrote a tribute to Smokey on a white placemat that Jonah ceremoniously hammered into the fence post.
For a moment we stood before the hole, looking at the little collection of mementos stuffed inside and wondering what might come next. Jonah had purchased a book, 100 Jewish Blessings for Everyday Life, in the gift shop of a Jewish museum on our trip, and immediately began flipping through it for a good prayer. “Join me,” he said, reading first the Hebrew and then the English: “Blessed is the Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings the dead back to life.”
We threw dirt into the hole, then picked some flowers from the garden and arranged them on top. The children seemed deeply relieved. They had paid tribute to Smokey in a way that borrowed from a number of major religions, while also drawing on their own personal sense of what was fitting and right to the occasion. We all felt less helpless, somehow.
That was the beauty of a funeral, I realized. We all have the terrible sense that the dead cannot be spoken to or helped; the act of coming together, of remembering them in a service makes us feel that we can do something in the face of such an enormous, inexplicable change. Our impromptu memorial did not stop our sadness for Smokey, of course, but it gave it a shape. It gave us an actual physical place to visit in order to remember him, and it provided us with the feeling that we were somehow still able to connect with him even though he was gone. The children seemed to feel they had done something useful for him, something that he would appreciate. They were now able to turn and go about their day.
I knew that Smokey was in the children’s minds, and would always be, but that they were beginning to figure out their lives without him. He would have a different role now, as a memory. That was part of life, that rolling adjustment. We were all part of the same club now: people who know a little something about loss and remembrance.