On a Wednesday, at 8:49 p.m., my husband and I made the difficult decision to say goodbye to our beloved 18-year-old cat, Tiger. Some of the details of our conversation with the vet, like “kidney disease” and “no treatment options” blurred together, but I won’t forget looking at the clock at the exact moment of heartbreak, sealing those raw feelings in my memory.
The whole thing was a complete shock. Just two hours earlier, I’d noticed that our usually vocal and active cat was lethargic. While I had a gut feeling something wasn’t right, I put on a brave face for the kids, wrapped her up in a blanket and sent my husband off to the vet. I waited by my phone for the next hour as they ran blood tests.
And then, amidst my worry, compulsive need to clean to distract my mind and the sound of “Paw Patrol” in the background, Brian called me. The vet was on speaker, and I felt like an outsider watching a nightmare unfold.
“Would you like to bring her home so the kids can say goodbye?” she asked.
Suddenly, my mindset changed. My kids. Oh my God, my sweet, young daughters. How could they cope with this when I couldn’t even begin to comprehend it? What do I tell them?
We were hesitant, but decided to bring the girls to the vet to say goodbye to Tiger. Because the vet didn’t know if Tiger had days or hours to live, we didn’t want to chance that she could die at home in the kids’ presence.
My then-2-year-old daughter Ellie was so innocent. The wonderful office staff at the vet gave her a coloring book and put on “Shrek” for her. She said goodbye to Tiger, but I think she thought Tiger was going away to play hide-and-seek.
My 5-year-old Hayley was another story entirely. I explained to her on the way over that like my parent’s dog, Tiki, who went to heaven a few months prior, Tiger was sick and needed to join him.
“Why can’t the vet help her, isn’t that their job?” she pleaded with me.
“How will they find each other in heaven?” she asked persistently.
The questions kept on coming.
Now, just three hours after sitting around the table eating spaghetti and meatballs, worrying only about finalizing our weekend plans, Hayley was saying goodbye to the first animal she’s ever known. The cat that attended her tea parties; the easy-going animal who tolerated piggy back rides from the kids; the cuddle companion that slept on the foot of their beds when they needed comfort.
I watched as Hayley pulled a beaded necklace out of her pocket that she strung together when Tiger had gone to the vet. It was colorful and had a Little Mermaid charm in the middle, her favorite. The vet made sure Tiger was wearing the necklace as she took her last breath.
“I’ll love you forever, Tiger,” she said while my heart sank to the floor.
Just as I anticipated, my sensitive kindergartner was asking all kinds of questions, tossing and turning throughout the night.
“Why do animals die”?
“Who decides when we die?”
“Why can’t we live forever?”
I told Hayley she could continue to ask questions, but for most of them, there weren’t answers.
Like any modern-day mom, I turned to a local mom group on Facebook for words of wisdom. I was fearful of giving the wrong answers. There, I found a place of support, encouragement and resources. It was cathartic to read stories from moms who’ve been where I was and who’ve come out stronger. Despite the different circumstances in everyone’s story, one common theme kept coming up: be honest with your child and try not to sugarcoat it.
“Kids are resilient, sometimes more than we give them credit for,” one mom reminded me.
As parents, all we can do is listen, validate their feelings and try to help them make sense of this thing called life.
I truly believe that while Tiger has left our life, she will never leave our hearts. In the days after her death, Hayley and Ellie drew photos and wrote letters to her, and we taped them to balloons and sent them up to heaven. It was a beautiful, intimate moment for our family.
Tips for helping kids deal with the loss of a pet
- Encourage your child to ask questions
- Validate your child’s feelings
- Remind your child what a good life they gave your pet
- Allow your child time to grieve and realize it may be different than your grief
- Provide your child with a tangible reminder of your pet (a photo, stuffed animal, etc.)
- Read a book to help families cope with loss
Lori Orlinsky is an award-winning author who has just released a book Balloons for Tiger, inspired by her family’s journey with grief. Balloons for Tiger is a great tool for any child who has experienced the loss of a pet- or any other loved one, too. The book contains a guide for educators to approach this topic with students as well as tips for parents and caregivers, written by a licensed social worker,