Loss of a Family Pet


RJ and Ellie at the beach
RJ and Ellie at the beach

I had a surreal moment two years ago. I was in my old house, sitting in familiar surroundings. My ex-wife, Susan, was in the kitchen sitting across from me and sharing a cup of coffee. We both had the same look of grief as well as relief. I could feel my eyes welling up as we began to reflect and share all the family memories of Ellie, our Australian Shepherd that was taking her last breaths in front us. We were awaiting the arrival of our vet to make the final house call to our beloved animal.  During the course of her 18 years and 9 months, we had shared the love of our only family pet and there were no more treatments or prescriptions that would extend her life any longer.  We had come to the decision together with our children and everyone was prepared and ready to celebrate her life and let her go off into heaven. This is story is about an extraordinary dog named Ellie, and a  single parent family that learned how to cope with the loss of a family pet together. I have gathered some notes and would like to share some of the advice and steps I took to prepare my family for the loss of our animal.

Step 1:  Assess the Situation
This first step can vary greatly depending on the situation. The reason I mention this is because some families can experience a sudden loss of a pet and are left with little time or room to manage the situation. If this is the situation, I strongly recommend the “inquiry” approach. For example, a pet goes missing for a few days. You live in a remote area where there are predators like foxes, or coyotes. You know what the possibilities could be. Do your “due diligence” by posting missing pet signs in your neighborhood and go door to door with your child. Keeping them involved in the process is important because it lets them know how much everyone in the family cares. When this exercise is done, the most important talk you can have with your child is to ask them, “What do you think happened?” This is the best way to assess their state of mind and to introduce other possibilities that are beyond your control. This is never fun but be as honest as possible. Do not rule out any possibility and set a realistic timeframe on results. There is nothing worse than having “guarded conversations” around children that have been lied to about the whereabouts of their lost pet. Now, I am not saying to openly force a conversation on a grieving child, but there is a point when every parent needs to set a date on a calendar for closure.

Step 1A:  Communicate the Medical Facts
This may sound silly, but we live in an age of constant information and our children thrive on communication. If we have the information, we need to offer them the medical facts and overall prognosis of the family pet. This is not a lesson on “selling hope”, it helps your child understand that the proper care is being given to your animal and what the ultimate chances of recovery are. In my situation, everybody had a clear understanding of Ellie’s age, health and prognosis. She was 18, going on 19. Most dogs her size never reach 15! We consider it a blessing that we had so many happy and healthy years with her. But she was getting tired and slow, the vet had given us a week-to-week prognosis on what to expect in the following weeks.

Step 2: Family Meeting
This was a family decision. It was important for me and my children to have their mother present to make Ellie’s final weeks as comfortable as possible.  We had a meeting at my house.  Everybody chipped in and thought of ways we could make the last days of her life as good as possible. Now, I could feel that my kids were acting as if they could somehow control and extend this animal’s life span a little longer. It was easy to see that they wanted to keep her around as long as possible. I had to play “bad cop” and remind them that our plans were for an inevitable ending; Ellie was going to heaven. Our plans were made, her last days were going to be at mom’s house and we agreed to cremation and all family members were going to have their own box of “Ellie Ashes” to keep for ourselves. After the meeting, I felt a greater respect for all of us wanting to help a family pet that gave back so much love to us.

Step 3: The Final Breath
I had asked my children if they wanted to be present on Ellie’s last day; and they all three declined. I strongly recommend not having young children present for this occasion. It’s not that it’s a violent event, it’s just not the way you want to remember someone you loved so much. (Note to self: closed casket). My ex-wife and I were the only ones present and we both whispered our last words into Ellie’s ear. We told her how much happiness and love she gave us and I held her in my lap. There is a process to euthanasia which I can only describe as a “big sleep” and I will always remember that day.

Step 4: Post Mortem
When I picked up my children from school that afternoon, there was a quiet calm. I encourage all parents to share your thoughts and emotions and to ask your children questions after a family’s pet has passed. Many of the questions were sincere and very compassionate. “Did she suffer?” “Was she in any pain?” “How long did it take?” I answered every question and then waited for my opportunity to return the questions.  I feel that the most important question that every parent should ask their child is: “How do you feel?” and then listen. I think this is the greatest opportunity as parents to see how our children can emotionally communicate their feelings. And I also feel this is the greatest opportunity for parents to share their emotions with their children and to let them know that it is ok to feel sad and it’s ok to cry with Daddy or Mommy. We will all miss Ellie and she is in a better place tonight and is looking down on us from heaven.

I hope sharing my personal experience has helped you in some way. I am not looking forward to the “Daddy, I want a puppy” conversation, and I am not sure what to do when that comes up. I hope you enjoy the attached video. For more parenting tips and advice, please feel free to contact me at www.SingleDad.com or email me at: rj@singledad.com.

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Images courtesy RJ Jaramillo.

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